The astonishing facts about what motivates us

It is not primarily about more money. 

In everyday work life, there is still a unanimous opinion that the more bonuses, premium payments or other material rewards a person gets, the higher the individual motivation. But, these extrinsic rewards rather “deliver a short term boost. Just as a jolt of caffeine can keep you cranking for a few more hours, but the effect wears off – and worse, can reduce a person’s long term motivation to continue the project.” (Pink, 2009)


Innovation, Motivation and Global Competition

But why are motivated employees so essential for a successful company? Employees that happily contribute their time, energy and ideas to a given cause are indispensable for an innovative company culture. And we all know that innovation is a crucial factor in order to remain globally successful in competition. (Meyer, 2012)

So we already learned that material rewards do not necessarily lead to continuing motivation – but still, what is stronger than this short-term energy boost? It is easier than you might assume. It is where intrinsic motivation comes in.

  • Intrinsic motivation – refers to doing something because it is interesting or enjoyable.
  • Extrinsic motivation – factors that come from outside-sources to an individual like money, incentive plans, or bonuses.
    (Ryan and Deci, 2000)

A little “thank you” can make a difference.

Think about how it makes you feel when your superior highly commends you for your work performance. It’s definitely an energy boost that doesn’t wear off that quickly, isn’t it? Factors like acknowledgment and recognition are most promising in regards to the creation of an innovative company culture with highly motivated employees. (Sprenger, 2002)
It is astonishing how a simple “well done, thank you” or an open door policy, where your personal ideas actually get implemented, influences the individual motivation.

Give your team members projects they are interested in.

It is even more interesting to look at projects where people became a part of something which is their passion. Let’s look especially at the browser Firefox, the online-encyclopedia Wikipedia and the operating-system Linux. These three have one thing in common: They are all open source projects which were created by a large number of users.
These users did not work for money but they wanted to express themselves individually – they wanted to be a part of something bigger.
“When the reward is the activity itself – deepening learning, delighting customers, doing one’s best – there are no shortcuts. In some sense, it’s impossible to act unethically because the person who’s disadvantaged isn’t a competitor but yourself.” (Pink, 2009)


The Big Five for Life” that complement your job.

What would your answer be if someone asked you about five things you personally want to reach in your life? Take some time to think about it and try to write it down. Would you want to perfect a foreign language? Would you want to accomplish some major research findings? Or would helping people and having a healthy family of yourself would make you exceptionally happy?

The author of the book “The Big FIVE for Life” discusses exactly this topic and goes even further: If employees work in a job which matches their predefined “Big FIVE for Life”, they would not only work for the company but they would automatically work on things they are personally interested in. As already mentioned in the paragraph before, it is the highest of motivation, when the reward is the activity itself. Thus, their work performance would go beyond fulfilling the job requirements. (Strelecky, 2008)

Hygiene Factors and Motivators.

So compensation and material rewards are not the decisive factors when it comes to motivation, but nevertheless, it cannot be left out completely. Factors like an adequate and plausible salary, fair working conditions or job security (=Hygiene factors) have to be fulfilled positively so that there is not a basic dissatisfaction among employees. As soon as these factors are marked positively, employees are not dissatisfied. And that’s a basis you can build on!

So in order to be surrounded by highly satisfied employees, who want to contribute actively, the so called Motivators like growth, responsibility, recognition or acknowledgment make the difference. (Herzberg, 1987)

Isn’t it crazy what impact a little thank you can have!? Also, don’t forget about the Big 5 for Life. This list can also be pretty useful when you are in between jobs or when starting your career.

Just answer the question “What do I actually want to reach in my life?” and define your 5 goals… and I am sure that you won’t have any regrets at the age of 60 or 70.


Pink, H. Daniel. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books, 2009.

Meyer, Jens-Uwe. “Innovationsfeindliche Kultur in vielen Unternehmen.“ Digital-Business. Heft 3, 2012.

Ryan, Richard M., and Edward L. Deci. “Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic

Definitions and New Directions.” Contemporary Educational Psychology. 25, 2000.

Sprenger, Reinhard K. Mythos Motivation: Wege aus einer Sackgasse. Frankfurt am Main,

Campus Verlag, 2002.

Herzberg, Frederick. “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?.” Harvard Business Review. Reprint 87507, 1987.

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