6 vital signs of employee motivation

The dictionary defines motivation thus: “willingness to do something, or something that causes such willingness”. In the workplace, what motivates employees to do their best work? Looking for answers finds some common themes.


Autonomy features strongly in reports and research on workplace motivation. Dan Pink, in his best-selling ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’, cites autonomy as being more motivating than money.  When employees have autonomy, they’re given freedom to decide how they’ll get the task done and when they’ll do the work. A UK study of 20,000 employees found positive effects on well-being and job satisfaction levels. Caveat: ‘Autonomy’ in this context doesn’t mean ‘Anarchy’ – people need to take responsibility and be accountable.


Trust goes hand in hand with autonomy. Being micromanaged – a sure sign a manager doesn’t trust the process, the employee, or both – can stifle creativity and initiative. When there’s trust between colleagues, engagement and accountability follow.

3. Recognition

Recognition builds motivation and fulfilment; whether it’s in the form of 1:1 feedback or group testimonials. People need to know that their efforts are being noticed and appreciated.

4. Competency

Competency or to use Pink’s term, ‘Mastery’, motivates. This can show up as a sense of progress when new skills are applied and improved. I’d add that opportunities to practise and access to support (such as a coach or mentor) are essential for competency to be achieved.

5. Connection

Connection through working relationships with team-mates and colleagues enables employees to learn with and from each other. There’s encouragement, enthusiasm and effort applied to the task.

6. Meaning

Meaning is motivating when people align with the organisation’s mission and vision. Pink calls this ‘Purpose’ – why the employer exists for a reason that everyone cares about – that’s bigger than themselves. People are proud of the purpose and proud of the work they do. This can sustain motivation through tough times and setbacks.

You may find this post useful: ‘6 ways to say Thank You’. 


Dawn is the author of ‘The Feedback Book’ and ‘How to be Zoomly at work’


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