Employee motivation is a critical element of performance and behaviour. It is influential across three dimensions – the amount of effort and attention, the directions of that effort and attention, and the way effort and attention are enacted. The combination of these things might recognised as “attitude”, which is subjectively perceived and hard to measure and manage but resulting in behaviours and performance which can be objectively measured and managed.
Motivation as a basic human concept arises from three neural processes – reward or loss anticipation, valuation, and self-regulation (1). For motivation in the workplace to be understood, channeled and enhanced, it must be in the context of these 3 systems, and the response systems they trigger to privilege preferred performances and behaviours.
Employee motivation can be:
- Extrinsic motivation (arising due to externally-imposed gains or losses as consequences of actions and behaviours, such as bonuses or disciplinary actions), or
- Intrinsic motivation (arising due to internal drives for rewards and avoidance of losses through the performance or consequences of actions and behaviours), or
- A combination of both (2, 3).
This paper explores the influences of intrinsic motivators identified as basic employee motivational needs in the Integrated Model of Employee Engagement as predictors of attitude, effort, performance, behaviour, fulfilment and well-being. For findings, it draws on research comparing intrinsic motivation of the four categories of need across four categories of employees finding consistent patterns between groups and variances between individuals.
The research also explores motivational schemas of approach and avoidance as responses to basic need fulfilment in the workplace, again finding consistent trends within and between vocation categories.
Basic Workplace Needs – Intrinsic Employee Motivation at Work
The Consistency-Theoretical Model of Mental Functioning (4, 5) is based on a combination of neuroscience, biology and the earlier observational research and hypotheses of others including Bowlby (6, 7), Epstein (8, 9), LeDoux (10) and Kandel (11-14). Based closely on Epstein’s model, it describes four basic needs that drive human motivation at an intrinsic and mostly non-conscious level and the response types employed in pursuing them.
It also describes the fear response as the primary survival function that takes inevitable precedence over other motivations at a neurobiological level. Where fear exists, the brain and body are “hijacked” in preparation for physical action, including disabling of higher-order brain function such as reasoning and emotional control. In effect this makes avoiding or escaping danger the strongest motivational need of all.
The Integrated Model of Employee Engagement describes these intersecting and overlapping basic needs, as adapted to the workplace, as:
- Connection (based on attachment): The need to experience safe, secure and trusting relationships and interactions at varying levels of intimacy and frequency
- Empowerment (based on orientation and control, commonalities with Self-Determination Theory): The need for confidence in understanding & influencing actions, events and outcomes, including feelings of competence and autonomy.
- Task Reward (based on the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain): The need for enjoyment and mental stimulation through interesting, varied, challenging and novel daily work experiences.
- Identity (based on self-esteem protection and enhancement): The need to feel a sense of self and place, largely derived from autobiographical memory, greater purpose and external feedback
The Integrated Model of Employee Engagement proposes that the pursuit of fulfilment of these needs, underpinned by safety, is the basis for intrinsic motivation in the workplace. It also acknowledges the influence of neural consistency (complimentary simultaneous synaptic activation) in processing, felt as moral guidance or conscience that allows different memory systems (implicit and explicit) to interact and moderate competing motivational influences. This can be felt, for example, as an ethical dilemma causing procrastination or regret on one hand, or as confidence or certainty on the other. Together, the satisfaction of basic needs in ways that support neural consistency is described by the Integrated Model of Employee Engagement as coherence, being the ultimate source of work fulfilment and (subject to other health and lifestyle issues) physical and psychological well-being.
Response Types – Habits & Causes
Grawe’s model identifies response-type categories of approach schema (gain-orientation), and avoidance schema (loss-aversion) as fundamental response types that leverage different emotions, capabilities and response options according to habit and possibility (the fear response being an extreme of the avoidance schema). An avoidance schema can be expressed in two different ways – “fight”, where the danger is resisted (directly or indirectly), or “flight”, where escape (physically or attentionally) occurs. The likely prevalence of approach versus avoidance schemas, and the ways they are enacted, as capacity and habit is subject to genetics and experiences in brain development (15, 16), being:
- Neurogenesis: The development of brain cells as programmed by DNA
- Epigenesis: The expression of DNA according to luck, experiences, well-being and environments
- Synaptogenesis: The formation of connections between brain cells and regions, including long-term memory (knowledge – either implicitly (intuition) or explicitly (available for recall)
- Myelinogenesis: The protection and increase in speed and capacity of regularly used synapses (3,000 x)
The prevalence of those response types varies for each individual subject to the environment they find themselves within, their capacity at that moment and the pressures they find themselves under. In this way, while an individual might have a greater tendency toward a given response type, it is directed related to its stimulus.
For example, compare the responses of a generally positive, optimistic (gain-oriented) person to someone who is more pessimistic (loss-aversive) in the same situation. Where there is no environmental stimulation linked to potential distress or risk perception and the opportunity to find fulfilment through an action choice, both can be expected to adopt an approach schema which sees them happily focusing on performing in good spirit with optimal cognitive capacity for reasoning and behavioural moderation. Where there is environmental stimulation perceived to be linked to inevitable distress and no possibility of averting significant loss or harm, both people can be expected to adopt an avoidance schema with reduced cognitive capacity for reasoning or behavioural control. It is only where a situation can be viewed and acted upon by the actors involved as either an opportunity for gain or loss (glass half-full vs half-empty) that the tendency for one to be more positive than the other can influence a different response according to differences in schema prevalence.
Similarly, the prevalence of passive or active avoidance schema responses, while influenced by the brain development processes noted, are situational responses. While an individual might be heavily passive-avoidant dominant, there will be stimuli and environments that see them adopt an active-avoidant response. For example, the person who normally avoids conflict and accommodates the needs of others to keep the peace, but now and then “blows up” when it all becomes too much. Or, the person who normally blows up readily (active-avoidance) but backs down when scolded by a parent-figure.
In this way, while there are differences and patterns in the comparative prevalence of response schemas within and between individuals and groups, it is the intersection of these schemas and workplace environments, stimulation and safety that triggers individual responses.
There are times that responses, either in the “choice” of response schema adopted or the way that schema is enacted, are helpful and effective, and times where they are less so. Where an action is effective in achieving fulfilment while also being supportive of other personal and social needs, it is a helpful response – a successful “adaptation” arising from myelinated neural pathways. For example, learning to keep calm under pressure, or learning to become curious about opinions that conflict with one’s own rather than simply arguing against them.
Where an action is ineffective, or perhaps counter-productive, in achieving fulfilment and being supportive of other personal and social needs, it is a “maladaptation” (4) arising from the same processes of creating and strengthening pathways through practice where they seemed to work. For example, a child who misbehaved to get attention, or bullied to feel superior, grows into an adult with similar habits. From neediness through to responsibility-avoidance or aggression, many of the behaviours which are undesirable or unacceptable in the workplace are maladaptive responses arising from childhood and/or previous workplace experiences.
Congruence and Incongruence – Employee Motivation for Continuity or Change
Where a basic need is met, a state of “congruence” is said to exist, serving as motivation for continuing similar behaviours and actions at similar energy and frequency levels (4). Where a basic need is not met (either over or under) an incongruence exists, motivating the individual to do something different to better match fulfilment level to need level.
Where an individual feels they can act to resolve an incongruence (a controllable incongruence), they feel motivated and compelled to do so, and may adopt either an approach or avoidance schema in the process, according to the perceived prospect and extent of loss or gain. Where an incongruence is felt to be incapable of resolution (an uncontrollable incongruence), the individual will not have the option of taking an approach response, so can only adopt an avoidance schema.
This need to be able to influence need fulfilment is identified in the Integrated Model of Workplace Engagement as efficacy. It is also an extension of the basic need for orientation and control, or empowerment, being the ability to understand and influence or control the things that affect an individual, physically or emotionally. The same principles apply to consistency and inconsistency, and then, together to coherence and incoherence, with the ideal of individuals being able to satisfy basic needs through actions that are originate by complimentary neural activation.
From a socio-evolutionary view, we are intrinsically motivated to do things that feel good and enhance our own survival and that of our gene pool. It is another matter whether those intrinsic motivations and the behavioural habits employed in pursuing them are well-matched to any given workplace environment, culture and role. Where they do, high employee engagement is possible.
The enabled pursuit of coherence as the foundation of employee engagement is illustrated through the Integrated Model of Employee Engagement, as below:
Chart 1. The Integrated Model of Employee Engagement
Survey – Method, Mix and Limitations
251 participants responded to an online survey that asked 32 questions relating to ideal and currently experienced need fulfilment. They were classified as 96 white-collar (leadership, management or supervisory roles), 14 grey-collar (desk-based supervised roles), 134 blue-collar (manual labour-based supervised roles) and 7 graduates (non-experienced entry-level desk-based supervised roles).
235 were also asked questions relating to habits relating to approach, passive avoidance and active avoidance response schemas. They were the same group as above with the exception of 16 white collar employees who completed their surveys prior to the addition of this section.
Participants mostly lived in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania. The sample group was dominated by male job seekers, many currently employed and others not. Most participants were interviewed separately to completing the survey, and some comments sentiments are shared here where relevant to research findings.
Questions were formulated to quantify and compare preferred level and current fulfilment for 4 core attributes of the four basic workplace needs. Wordings were designed to minimise the effect of mood, but it is inevitable that attitudes and expectations of current or recent workplace environments, stresses and experiences will have influenced perceptions around both need level and fulfilment. It is also likely that some respondents tried to give answers designed to please the reviewer, but there is little direct evidence or patterns that suggest this was a significant problem. Of more influence is likely to have been subjectivity in responses – for example “generally agree” for one person might equate to “completely agree” for another, producing similar patterns but to different extents. Scores are meaningful only in their relativity to each other for comparative purposes between individuals and groups.
Prior to completion, in conversation and on the survey form, participants were advised that there were no right or wrong answers, or consequence from answer choice. However, in another survey completed at the same time and designed at a more conscious and therefore manipulatable level for the purpose of detecting reliability, there was some evidence of attempts at deception by some respondents. There was however no evidence of intentional deception in the survey used here, but it must be assumed that, intentionally or unintentionally, and despite innocuous and simple wordings at a non-conscious level appropriate for the subject, there must inevitably be some inaccuracies inherent in individual responses. The good sample size, and the consistency with which results established and stabilized over the collection period, suggests that result patterns are reliable.
Intrinsic Workplace Motivators – Levels and Current Fulfilment
The most reliable data sets are for participants identified as white collar (96) and blue collar (134), but grey collar and graduate groups have also been identified separately due to similar standard deviations and averages. All group averages weighted all participants equally. Charts are generally graphed for the score range of 50 to 100 for ease of comparison.
By Category of Workplace Motivational Need
The following charts compare need level (intrinsic motivation) and current fulfilment across the four groups.
Chart 2 shows a pattern of consistent connection motivation across all groups and a preference for slightly more than currently experienced for 3 out of the 4 groups, being largest for the blue-collar group. The standard deviation indicates that there are a broad range of views on what a preferred or current level is, and that an individual cannot be assumed to have a given level of need according to the vocation category they fit within. Of the four needs, connection has the most consistent level of need and is the most consistently satisfied.
Chart 2. Connection: Current fulfilment versus felt need as intrinsic motivation
Chart 3 shows a larger fulfilment gap (incongruence) for the need for identity across all groups, with the blue-collar group again having a larger incongruence than the white-collar group. The graduate group also has a large incongruence, but the sample group size is not large enough for that result to be uniquely conclusive. Similar standard deviations again indicate high variability, so an employee cannot be stereotyped based on vocation alone. The all-group incongruence between need and fulfilment for identity is larger than for connection but smaller than for the other two basic workplace needs.
Chart 3. Identity: Current fulfilment versus felt need as intrinsic motivation
Empowerment, shown in chart 4 below, reinforces the overall pattern of preference for greater fulfilment, this time indicating that the white-collar group requires higher levels and are more fulfilled than blue-collar group, who are comparatively disempowered, likely due to having less influence over their environments and action choices. This is consistent with the Self-Determination Theory (3), which predicts that higher extrinsic motivation (e.g., control and consequences imposed by others) will result in lower intrinsic motivation, effort, engagement and fulfilment. Empowerment is the third-best satisfied of the four needs.
Chart 4. Empowerment: Current fulfilment versus felt need as intrinsic motivation
Task Reward, as shown in chart 5, is the least satisfied of the four basic workplace needs. It shows substantial incongruences across all groups, indicating boredom and disengagement with work tasks themselves is likely to be a large contributor to overall disengagement. The graduate group again has the largest incongruence, which could easily be attributed to the likely repetition of entry-level jobs in combination with unrealistic expectations, but the sample group is too small to be seen as reliably representative.
The lower preference and fulfilment for task reward (variety, challenge, learning and enjoyment) for the blue-collar group in comparison to the white-collar group is notable. It is not known whether those employees are attracted to those roles because they entered the workforce with different motivation levels for task reward, or that expectations and consequent motivation have been adjusted over time (through reward anticipation error (17)), due to repeated workplace experiences. It is readily apparent that task reward, likely through the specialization of roles in modern workplaces and the lack of novelty, challenge and stimulation created by their design and need for compliance and routine, is the area with the largest incongruence, and therefore the greatest potential for increasing employee effort and fulfilment.
If the need level for graduates is representative of graduates generally, it is possible that employment experiences involving low autonomy and manual task repetition involving little cognitive stimulus (e.g., many blue-collar roles) may diminish reward expectation, and therefore intrinsic work motivation, over time.
Chart 5. Task Reward: Current fulfilment versus felt need as intrinsic motivation
The combined chart shown below indicates that of the major groups, white-collar employees are on average more motivated and more fulfilled than blue-collar employees. However, the standard deviations indicate that this cannot be relied upon as a type-prediction for any individual employee within or between groups. Overall, the patterns are consistent across all four categories of need and fulfilment, seen as reliable as a general guideline across groups but not between individuals.
It is also apparent that the pattern of greater variability in current fulfilment than motivation carries across all four basic needs and for all groups.
Chart 6. Overall: Current fulfilment versus felt need as intrinsic motivation
By Category of Vocation group
The following charts show these results for the two most-sampled employee groups, highlighting the congruence gaps between need level as intrinsic motivation and current fulfilment. The following feedback was typical in interviews for both groups:
- Poor connection fulfilment was not often a motivator for job change, but good connection fulfilment was often fondly recalled as the reason for past or current engagement, effort, flexibility and retention.
- All employees interviewed said they responded well to sincere positive feedback. However, identity was not often adversely affected by negative feedback if it was balanced by positive feedback when appropriate and provided in a manner perceived to be respectful, timely, open, supportive and solution-oriented. Almost every employee felt their work was worthwhile and contributed to society generally, but there was much less consistency across all groups around perceptions of working toward a shared vision.
- Micro-management was not generally nominated as big a disabler of empowerment as was expected. Rather, simply not having the trust or autonomy to make decisions and self-direct actions was more common for all employee groups, but particularly for highly supervised roles, serving to reduce care, motivation, effort and intrinsic reward.
- Repetitive, unchallenging and unstimulating work tasks were a consistent theme for deficits in task reward, with many wanting more learning opportunities and interest in their daily tasks, often to the extent that they enjoyed pushing themselves to their limits. Many fondly recalled their biggest, most difficult and most satisfying efforts and achievements as work highlights, with many also identifying favourite jobs or managers as those who gave them the opportunity and support to learn and build new skills.
Chart 7. White-Collar Group: Current fulfilment versus felt need as intrinsic motivation for continuity or change
Chart 7 (above) shows a similar pattern of under fulfilment for white-collar employees as chart 8 (below) does for blue collar employees, but in all cases white-collar employees, despite having higher intrinsic motivation and consequent expectation of reward, were more fulfilled in every category of basic workplace need.
Chart 8. Blue-Collar Group: Current fulfilment versus felt need as intrinsic motivation for continuity or change
All-group totals illustrate, on average, the incongruences as deficits across all areas of need, with connection and identity (the more socially-related needs) being largely fulfilled. Empowerment and task reward (the more task-related needs) are somewhat and largely unfulfilled respectively. This indicates there is likely to be more employee effort and productivity to be gained through design and management of roles, tasks and how they are performed (e.g., enabling greater competency, autonomy, interest and challenge) than through workplace social and team-building events.
Chart 9. All-Groups: Current fulfilment versus felt need as intrinsic motivation for continuity or change
Response Schemas – Capacity & Actions
As with motivation and fulfilment, the most reliable data sets are for participants identified as white collar (80) and blue collar (134), but grey collar and graduate groups have also been identified separately due to similar standard deviations and averages. All group averages weighted all participants equally.
Chart 10. All-Groups: Response schema prevalence
Chart 10 compares the prevalence of approach, active avoidance (fight) and passive avoidance (flight) responses across the four employee groups. The difference between white- and blue-collar groups (as the most reliably-sized sample groups) is evident, with white-collar employees on average being more positive in how they respond to problems, challenges and risk.
Chart 11 compares this information a little more graphically for white- and blue-collar employee groups. Considering the number of participants, the pattern is seen as reliable, but the standard deviation indicates that individual responses are unlikely to be as reliably predictable for a member of either group. It is however notable that the standard deviation for white-collar employees (ranging from 58.5% to 83.5%) is much higher than for blue-collar employees (ranging from 56.3% to 71.7%), indicating more stability in blue-collar employee responses.
These surveys also asked about positivity trends, which are reflected in the comments in chart 11. As can be seen in that chart, on average both groups generally felt they were shifting slightly toward approach responses, and toward passive rather than active avoidance responses. No significance is attributed to this data due to small shifts and comparatively large standard deviations.
Chart 11. Response schema prevalence: White-Collar vs Blue-Collar
A comparisons of avoidance response schema-types shows that white-collar employees are more likely, on average, to be active in their responses, and less likely to let upsets go. This may reflect their generally higher power-positioning within the workforce, speculation supported by comments made by white-collar participants concerning their experiences and expectations of frequent and broad-ranging responsibility, autonomy and accountability.
Chart 12. Avoidance response type prevalence: All groups
Intrinsic Employee Motivation Research Limitations
Observations not detailed in this report were that there were no distinctions from region to region, between age groups, or between males and females. The only significant pattern not detailed here is the high level of congruence experienced in their most recent roles by job applicants who were made redundant after medium or longer (3+ years) periods of service. This was supported through open-ended questioning in personal interviews as an indicator that they were fulfilled in that position and at the time of completing the survey were looking to replicate that experience (as a known enabler of congruence).
It should be noted that, as most participants were job applicants, there is likely to have been a tendency to present a preferred view of themselves. However, there was no evidence of this as a reliable pattern. With data interpreted as a comparison between individuals and groups rather than as stand-alone objective measurements, the trend was more important than specific answers of individuals. For data integrity, no participants were excluded as “outliers”, irrespective of responses.
Each of the four workplace needs has been weighted equally in these findings. This means that measures of need level and incongruences are not directly comparable – for example, there is no quantification of the impact of connection versus task reward. There are also likely to be differences between individuals due to variations and fluctuations in need fulfilment or incongruences outside of work. For that reason, although comparisons are made, there is no assertion that a large (uncontrollable) incongruence in one area of need is therefore the largest source of distress or motivator of change. Rather, larger incongruences have suggested “lower-hanging-fruit” and room for management innovation for rapid improvement to productively-directed effort and engagement.
Conversations with participants showed a general trend of a more transactional approach to work (an exchange of labour or hours for payment) for those who had lower levels of intrinsic motivation and engagement at work and a more unstable work history. This is consistent with the predictions and research of self-determination theory, where it was found that a dominance of extrinsic motivation does not support discretionary effort, engagement, fulfilment or well-being (3).
Neural consistency, relating to the compatibility of beliefs, values, ethics, feelings, intuition and implicit memory systems in general, as shown in the Integrated Model of Workplace Engagement, is an important influence on engagement and well-being that is not explored by this research. Consequently, the extent of controllable incongruences as intrinsic motivation for action and prevalence of approach and avoidance responses alone cannot be a stand-alone measure of employee engagement.
Extrinsic motivation was not explored in this research specifically, as the intention was to explore work motivation in the context of employee engagement rather than basic compliance. Research has found that extrinsic motivation doesn’t enhance problem-solving, creativity or flexibility (18, 19). Specifically, financial rewards were found to decrease capacity for problem-solving, complex tasks and difficult goals (20, 21). It can be speculated that this reduced cognitive capacity arises from the motivation system’s habit of reward anticipation bringing forward the financial reward, changing the motivational schema from approach (acting to gain the reward) to avoidance (acting to prevent its loss).
Discussion and Implications
That a gap between basic need level (intrinsic motivation) and its fulfilment exists for more than a short period indicates that it is likely to be an uncontrollable incongruence, serving as a motivator for distress, disengagement and change through avoidance responses (fight or flight) rather than for ideally-directed productive effort. Employers may wish to create incongruences to change attention, effort and behaviour, but to avoid disengagement must empower employees (efficacy) to act to resolve them, as they are intrinsically motivated to do. Both high extrinsic motivation and uncontrollable incongruences are linked to reduced employee well-being and dominantly avoidance responses (3, 4).
Connection is the most-fulfilled workplace motivational need and with small variances across all groups, unlikely to be a major cause of sustained employee engagement or disengagement. This may be because the need for connection is so strong that people are unable to tolerate workplace environments where incongruences are uncontrollable, acting urgently to avoid either isolation & exclusion or feeling socially vulnerable & overwhelmed. There is some support for this through comments expressed in interviews as past or present motivation to remain at a workplace (or in a team at a workplace) where congruence was enhanced, or to leave despite having bills to pay and no better option arranged where incongruences were felt to be uncontrollable.
It is also possible that connection is the most fulfilled need because most employees can regulate their workplace choices and interactions to best fit their need level and type. For example, a person with a high connection need is more likely to be attracted to a customer-facing or team-based vocation or role in a workplace that is known to be highly sociable than someone who prefers to work alone and would feel uncomfortable in those situations. Similarly, an employee may wish to spend time gossiping and forming social bonds, perhaps even organising activities outside of work, where others in the same workplace and role may prefer privacy and to socialise with their family.
This result suggests that “bonding” and other team-building activities may be less effective than hoped in increasing employee engagement, but that they may still be useful for improving understanding, trust and coordination through gossip (as the human version of social grooming (22) necessary for relationship-building) on the basis that employees are not forced to socialise more than they wish, or made to feel socially unsafe or overwhelmed.
Linked to self-esteem, social place and the search for meaning and purpose, identity is the next-best fulfilled workplace need. This suggests that most employees would prefer more recognition, appreciation and positive feedback but, although nominated as a cause for reduced effort in participant interviews, was not often cited as a core motivator for job change. The openness often expressed in conversations to supportive, solution-oriented and honest negative feedback also suggests that although positive feedback is naturally preferred, the honesty and respect that comes with open, prompt and solution-oriented negative feedback is generally welcome too.
The fulfilment level in identity can also be internally supported to some extent, with employees reflecting positively on achievements and social standing without regular external reinforcement through the words of superiors. However, the neuroscience of motivation ensures that sincere, positive personal feedback relating to specific efforts and behaviours will increase or reinforce motivation for repetition of similar action choices, irrespective of whether there is an existing significant fulfilment deficit.
The general lack of inspiration through sharing of an inspiring vision by leaders identified as the most desirable leadership behaviour by Kouzes and Posner (23), and identified in interviews as uncommon, suggests that there may also be further identity fulfilment or reinforcement possible by doing so. However, for many the vision of a productive day’s work or pleasing peers, managers or customers may serve a similar “purpose” function in preserving or enhancing identity, albeit on a more modest or task-specific scale.
On a task-by-task basis, empowerment can be most directly linked to work performance. Having the information, resources, skills and ability to get on with the job is critical in that regard, and things that get in the way, such as being kept in the dark, feeling incapable or being micro-managed are highly distressing. This is exacerbated by the inability of many employees to act to resolve those incongruences. It is then unsurprising that, on average, blue-collar employees feel significantly less empowered than white collar employees simply through being less able to influence task requirements, action choices, resource availability, decisions and information flow.
There are challenges for managers wishing to improve employee empowerment. An increasingly apparent one of those is in the need for transparency, process, auditability and accountability that forces organisations to adopt and discipline employees to rigid rules, policies and procedures. The second is the often erroneous feeling that giving more autonomy and control to subordinates in turn reduces the control leveraged by managers.
The ideal approach to enabling empowerment congruence is to communicate (at macro and micro levels), train, support and set boundaries – and then to allow employees to self-regulate to the extent possible within those restrictions and guidelines considering their capacity to do so. This satisfies the need for orientation (I understand how things work and why) and control (competence and autonomy), in turn enabling employees to act and behave in ways that meet role requirements and their own drive for self-determination. Or, put another way, it creates an extrinsic framework for intrinsic motivation and fulfilment.
Task reward has the highest need level and the lowest congruence, suggesting it is likely to be the most fertile opportunity for increasing employee motivation, fulfilment and engagement. There are however some challenges. For example, if someone is highly experienced, expert and efficient at performing a task, it is unlikely that an employer will be keen to shift that employee to another task simply because they are, as they perceive it, a bit bored. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t opportunities to add variety or interest.
There are limitations to the enjoyment a role or task can offer – but that doesn’t mean improvements aren’t possible without compromising quality, productivity or safety. There are also limitations on available learning opportunities – but often through neglect where continual learning and skill advancement (also linked to empowerment) is not seen as a worthwhile investment by a now-focused employer.
Perhaps the biggest stumbling block for managers is the reticence to offer challenges that motivate extra attention, effort and reward. The motivation valuation system places a high value on high-effort, high-reward activities, so it is entirely natural that employees look forward to and enjoy these highly stimulating and productive tasks or projects. There is a proviso here – if the risk attached to a challenge is perceived as too high, and/or success is perceived as not entirely or mostly controllable, an avoidance response is likely as the same motivational valuation system values the prospect of loss twice as highly as the possibility of gain. If a challenge or task is long or complex, there is also a weighting away from delayed gratification, so that motivation is greater when larger tasks and projects are broken down into more immediately-achievable chunks or milestones.
For employers who wish to improve employee engagement through the potential of increasing task reward and motivation, there are some practical restrictions on task variety and enjoyment that can be hard to overcome simply because of the nature of the work to be done – not everything can be interesting, comfortable, pleasant or exciting. However, there is little to stop employers from upskilling employees in areas that relate to current work, or more generally in areas of interest and/or future potential. There are two risks here – one is of paying for employees to outgrow their jobs, and the other is in not having an internal funnel of continually-improving employees who have proven themselves and fit within the workplace standards and culture ready for new responsibilities and challenges.
The neuroscience of motivation ensures that task reward, as a trigger of the powerful dopamine system, is not only an in-process motivator, but part of shaping reward anticipation, which in turn serves as motivation for future behaviours. Immediacy is also an emotional bias, where a reward now is valued over a reward later (a bird in the hand being preferable to two in the bush). This means that where an employer builds rewards in to a task or set of tasks (achievement of milestones, positive recognition, enjoyable interactions), the act of performing the task, becomes more rewarding, and therefore more appealing in future. Similarly, reflection on efforts and achievements enhances and extends the dopamine hit that comes from completion, again increasing reward in the present and motivation for repeats in the future. This can mean, for example, that an experience of successfully overcome challenge in a supportive and rewarding environment is likely to be highly motivational when a similar opportunity arises in the future, supporting discretionary effort and an approach response schema for enhanced cooperativeness and problem-solving.
Within a range of tolerance for individual differences, white-collar employees on average nominated higher levels of motivation across all categories of basic workplace need than blue-collar employees. They also nominated a higher likelihood of approach responses. This may be the source of their appetite for extra responsibility, risk and reward, or may be a result of having rewarding experiences doing those things in the past. DNA encoding, motivational neuroscience and neuroplasticity strongly suggest that a combination of those reinforcing each other is most likely.
Incongruence, presumed to be uncontrollable due to not being resolved as individuals are motivated to do, is common across all groups and areas of need. Accordingly, enabling the maintenance of congruences and the resolution of incongruences in ways that are supportive of organisational needs and culture is likely to improve employee performance and behaviour. Further, where those pathways to achieving or enhancing congruence are non-threatening and biased toward enhancing fulfilment, an approach-schema is likely, facilitating cooperativeness, problem-solving, emotional management and well-being. Where the pathway to achieving or maintaining congruence is through avoiding loss, a quick avoidance response can be expected aimed at physical, but not cognitive or cooperative, activity and may or might not be the one imagined or hoped for by the manager.
For these reasons, where employers recognise their capacity to enable employees (existing and prospective) to supportively pursue congruence in ways that are desirable for the organisation and its culture, they are more likely to enable superior employee engagement, performance, cooperativeness, fulfilment and well-being.
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