The Puzzle of Motivation

The Puzzle of Motivation

My experience of executive search, recruitment and relationship management has shown me the boundless value of a motivated workforce. Author and economist Dan Pink’s research into motivational strategies demonstrates that the difference between the industry average and market leaders is a strong employee motivation strategy. Unfortunately, ‘motivation’ is one of those loose, ‘HR-esque’ terms which we struggle so much to pin down and implement. Before we can solve a puzzle, we must identify the pieces.

Pink identified the three vital components of an employee’s engagement levels as purpose, autonomy and mastery. Whilst the following research is bizarre and defies basic economics, I have noticed that the HR arena has been placing more and more value on employee engagement and am pleased to see it; although this is coming dangerously close to quoting David Brent, investment in people has to be a priority.


A genuine belief that what you do is valued, that your opinion matters and that your absence would be missed, all things that performance management practices (should) aim to nurture, cooperate to form a sense of purpose. An employee who can see the demonstrable impact of their efforts will be motivated to continue to be a valued member of a team.

It is in the absence of a sense of purpose that we have realised that many performance management schemes aren’t personal enough. Rewarding only great achievements devalues your employees’ day-to-day efforts, whereas noticing the little things that they do each day, and doing little things for your employees each day creates a healthy working relationship.


I know all too well that having the freedom to govern oneself is a very attractive aspect for an employee. Giving employees control over how they work helps them to apply themselves most effectively. We like to be treated as adults, trusted to manage ourselves.

In his TED Talk, Dan Pink’s research showed that for tasks which involved simple mechanical skill, financial incentives work as would be expected; the more you paid someone the better they performed. But when asked to apply even rudimentary cognitive skill, financial rewards in fact encouraged poorer performance. This seems incredible, but it’s clear that the ‘carrot and stick’ approach is too basic a formula for human nature.


To develop a skill and to have faith in your own abilities is so empowering; we practise musical instruments in our spare time or persevere with marathon training not because it earns money but because it is personally satisfying. If you were to copy Google and Atlassian and give your employees time to explore other avenues, this would give them room to add value to their skill sets. Some of the most innovative and successful creations were born out allowing creative breathing room; Gmail, Google News and AdSense could never have emerged under the fixation on completion of a task for monetary attainment, rather than a journey of discovery. This is not to suggest that profit motives cannot work at all, but it seems we have underestimated how much people care about mastering their craft.

The key to understanding how to engage your employees is to appreciate the difference between engagement and motivation; being engaged or intrinsically motivated is to believe in the ‘cause’, genuinely caring for what you do. Extrinsic motivation is prompted only by external factors, the most obvious of which is money. Engaging your employees is about finding where the balance lies between these two types of motivation.


Please help yourself to your free white paper: The Puzzle of Motivation


With a foreword by Andrea Cartwright, Group HR Director at SuperGroup,  this white paper looks at the common challenges businesses face when trying to develop a strong employee motivation strategy, and illuminates the ways in which you can overcome them for business success.

Author: Caroline Beer

Posted on: Wednesday 27th Aug 2014

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