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Employee motivation and why it’s important for organisations

14 min read
Employee motivation is critical for your overall company performance. After all, when your people are motivated, your organisation is more likely to achieve success in a competitive world. But how can you identify and tap into the ambitions of your people? Find out in this guide.


What is employee motivation?

Employee motivation is the amount of energy, dedication, and creativity that employees bring to work every day.

We all know that active, committed, and innovative employees can make a greater contribution to a company than tired, unimaginative, and unmotivated ones. When employees are motivated, they’re more likely to bring their best selves to work and achieve great things.

Of course not all employees are highly motivated, some are disengaged, while others may not believe in the organisation’s values or mission. It’s these employees that organisations must focus on to boost employee motivation overall.

In this article, we’re going to cover the fundamentals of employee motivation — from the theory and its value to how it benefits organisations and what to do to cultivate it.

How are employee motivation and engagement linked?

Motivation explains:

  • Why a person does something
  • How they get started
  • How they maintain momentum
  • How they achieve their goals

While this sounds simple, it’s difficult for a human resources team to pin down as a single metric as people are motivated by different things.

Employee engagement is how much discretionary effort an employee gives to help their organisation achieve its goals. It’s demonstrated by how employees think, feel, and act, as well as the emotional connection employees feel towards their organization, their work, and their team.

Motivation and engagement are inextricably linked. Without an effective employee engagement strategy, you would struggle to nurture teams that feel motivated to perform their best work. Engagement and motivation are complementary driving forces that initiate, drive and maintain goal-focused behaviours.

There are two kinds of motivation:

Extrinsic motivation: Employees are driven by external factors that are controlled by other people, such as team dynamics, camaraderie, pay rate, other benefits, and deadlines. Extrinsic rewards include a bonus for going the extra mile to achieve the company’s goals, or — on the other hand — a penalty for missing a deadline.

Intrinsic motivation: This is more often tied to engagement. Employees are driven by their psychological desire to do meaningful work with their fellow humans, and do it well. Intrinsic rewards include helping their team perform the best, contributing to business success, or making a difference in the community or the world.

Why is employee motivation and engagement important?

When you think about motivated employees, you probably picture a team of happy, focused workers, who are willing to take on tasks, complete them competently and quickly, and have the energy left to tackle some more.

A motivated team will produce quality work, in a timely fashion, and, being satisfied employees, will want to remain with your organisation doing a job they enjoy.

Conversely, when you think of employees with low motivation, you probably picture unhappy, sluggish individuals who are working slower and with less care. They may be avoiding tasks, distracting others, and quiet quitting.

An unmotivated team may produce substandard work, turn up late, and, as dissatisfied employees, are more likely to quit your organisation for a more engaging work environment.

eBook download: 2023 Employee Experience Trends report 

What’s the return on investment (ROI) of motivated and engaged employees?

employee recognition statistic

Source: Aberdeen Group

When employees work in a positive work environment, there are many benefits, financial and otherwise, that lead to a company’s success. For example, when employees are motivated and engaged, organizations experience:

Higher productivity

Motivated, happy employees work more productively and produce higher revenues. And when employees feel they are working productively, this improves employee engagement and job satisfaction.

More innovation

When employees feel valued and receive rewards for their hard work, they are more willing to challenge themselves. And out of challenge comes innovation.

Less absenteeism

Absenteeism costs a company money. Motivated employees who want to come to work each day are less inclined to ‘take a sickie’ unless they are truly unwell. Part of employee motivation is taking care of employees’ well-being and workloads so that they do not become overworked and unmotivated. When employees are engaged and motivated, absenteeism is reduced by 41%.

Greater profitability

Research from Gallup shows that highly engaged and motivated teams show 23% greater profitability than those that don’t. Engaged and motivated employees show up every day with passion, purpose, and energy.

Higher employee retention

You’ve attracted top talent, you need to keep hold of them. When you motivate employees with both extrinsic rewards and intrinsic rewards, they will likely want to stay with your organisation and progress as high as they can. It’s far cheaper to retain great employees than recruit new ones.

Easier recruitment

Keep your HR professionals happy by having top talent come knocking on your door for a job. When a company gets a good reputation as a motivated workplace it will attract energetic employees whose individual efforts will benefit everyone.

Strong brand reputation

Happy, productive, motivated employees are your best brand ambassadors. They positively influence both customer and employee relations, two factors that are essential for achieving brand equity.

How to improve employee motivation step by step

If you’re looking to increase employee motivation, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a good framework to get you started. The five levels of needs are:

  1. Physiological:  air, water, food, shelter, sleep, clothing, reproduction
  2. Safety: security, employment, resources, health, hygiene factors
  3. Social:  friendship, intimacy, social interaction, love
  4. Esteem: respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, appreciation, freedom
  5. Self-actualisation: To become the very best you can be

1. Physiological needs

Even the most basic workplace should supply a kettle, tea, and coffee, fresh air, uniforms or specialised work clothes if applicable, and an office roof that doesn’t leak. You can keep employees motivated with a decent canteen, regular team lunches, and a light, clean, well-maintained, and homely working environment that’s pleasant to come into every day.

2. Safety needs

Aside from mandatory employee safety considerations enshrined in law (the Occupational Safety and Health Act 1970, for example), organisations should also have strategies in place for employee resources and hygiene factors.

Hygiene factors are based on Frederick Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory or dual-factor theory. It argues that there are separate sets of mutually exclusive factors in the workplace that either cause job satisfaction or dissatisfaction. For organisations, the idea is to improve these factors for employees to increase job satisfaction and decrease job dissatisfaction respectively.

Satisfiers Dissatisfiers (Hygiene factors)
Performance and achievement Salary
Recognition Working conditions
Job status The physical workspace
Responsibility Relationship with supervisor
Personal growth Quality of supervisor
The work itself Policies and rules

So when we think about safety factors in relation to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory, we’re not just looking at an employee’s physical health and safety, but also their access to resources, job security, and more.

3. Social needs

This is probably the area where you can make the most impact to motivate employees. A positive, inclusive company culture is extremely important for a motivated workplace where everybody feels valued and part of the team. Here’s what you need to do:

Cultivate a culture of belonging

Belonging has emerged as the top employee experience driver linked to employee engagementwell-being, and employee motivation. Belonging not only meets your employees’ social needs, it also inspires their work and drives better business results.

Develop a workplace that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive

Working with people of different races, colours, religions, sexes, national origins, ages, disabilities, and genetic information generates huge motivation in the workplace. It brings a wide variety of skills and experiences to group projects within a company to create a culture of work motivation that drives success.

Encourage teamwork (with a little competition thrown in)

Teamwork is the key to employee motivation. Cohesive, highly motivated teams where everybody plans, shares ideas, and solves problems are essential to achieve company goals.

Enable flexibility

When people have better work-life balance, they’re much more likely to go above-and-beyond for their organisations. According to our EX Trends 2023 research report, 63% of the respondents who rated their work-life balance highly said they were also willing to go above-and-beyond for the organisations. Whereas of those who rated their work-life balance poorly, only 29% of respondents said the same.

That’s not all — when employees have a good work-life balance, they’re 1.2x more likely to have higher well-being scores, as well as:

  • 28% more likely to have their expectations exceeded at work
  • 23% more likely to have higher engagement scores
  • 20% more likely to feel included
  • 18% more likely to continue working for their current employer for 3+ years
  • 16% less likely to be at risk of burnout

4. Esteem needs

The number one driver of motivation in the long term is being shown appreciation for hard work. According to research, 90% of HR professionals agreed that an effective reward and recognition program helps drive business results. There are various ways you can recognise and appreciate your employees:

  • Acknowledge a job well done: When we’re told we’ve done a good job, we get a warm fuzzy feeling, a confidence boost, and are motivated to do it again. This need not just apply to work well done; somebody could have demonstrated bravery or tenacity in a difficult situation — reward employees who have done this too.
  • Just say thank you: a sincere word, a little note or a team shout-out of thanks can boost an individual’s motivation. You can extend this extrinsic motivation with extra PTO days, vouchers, or trips out.
  • Award individuals and teams: Add a little more intrinsic motivation with friendly competition, such as ‘team of the month’ or ‘employee of the month’ initiatives, ensuring that other employees get recognised in turn too.
  • Set objectives with individual employees: When managers take the time to get to know their direct reports and set objectives personally with each one, that is motivating, and likely to inspire a high level of commitment and energy to the task. Give them the freedom to do the job their way, too.

Inspirational quote

5. Self-actualisation

‘Being the best you can be’ can range from wanting to be CEO to aspiring to be the friendliest sales assistant on the shop floor. So whatever your employees’ ambitions, they’ll feel motivated to achieve them when they’re empowered to do so. You can help facilitate this by:

  • Giving employees autonomy: Trust your people to do their jobs without constantly checking in on them. Good managers let their team get on with the job, but are there for support if necessary.
  • Providing regular training programs: Employees are motivated by learning new things, whether technical skills for their tasks, or extra life skills training. Offering training also demonstrates to employees that management is dedicated to investing in their people, which is also motivating.
  • Encouraging creativity and innovation: When employees cannot express their creative ways, they get bored and unmotivated. Encourage everyone to contribute ideas when developing new products, services, logos, or branding — being heard is key to employee satisfaction.
  • Developing career paths: One of the biggest motivational factors for an employee is having an ambition and seeing a clear career advancement path to it. Everyone feels motivated when they have a career goal and management must encourage ambitious employees to grow and develop with the company.

The key to employee motivation? Feedback

Because motivation is a feeling, you need to ask your employees how they feel about their work. Does the office meet their needs? Do they know how to operate that machine safely? Do they feel they fit in with the team? Did a manager say thank you for that tricky presentation done well? Do they want to apply for the management training program?

You can ask for employee feedback in many different ways, but one of the most effective ways to capture and act on feedback is through a continuous listening and feedback solution.

With tools like Qualtrics EmployeeXM™, you can gather continuous feedback from every employee experience to take the right actions to impact engagement, talent planning, productivity and innovation. It empowers your organisation to take actions that put your people first.

Forget asking just once a year at annual performance reviews — Qualtrics EmployeeXM gives you access to tools that enable you to create and quickly distribute high-quality surveys to capture employee motivations and needs. You have:

Then, leverage predictive analytics and real-time dashboards to measure trends and identify issues before they become problems. You’ll also be able to identify what your employees find motivating, and the obstacles holding them back from achieving their full potential.

Plus, with automated actions and workflows, you can help frontline managers act on employee experience and motivation needs, closing the loop for every employee experience.

2023 employee experience trends report