Research shows managers and direct reports misidentify what motivates each other

Do you know what motivates others at work?  Probably not explains Dr. David Facer in a recent article for Training magazine.  Facer, a motivation expert and senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies, points to research from Duke University where subjects were asked to rate what motivates them individually, and what motivates peers and superiors at different levels in an organization. In most cases, the subjects rated their peers and superiors as more interested in external incentives than they said was true for themselves.

Funny thing is, senior executives make the same mistake when trying to identify what motivates their direct reports.  In separate research, Facer points to studies at George Mason University where executives emphasize external factors such as compensation, job security, and promotions while employees point to inherent factors such as interesting work, being appreciated for making meaningful contributions, and a feeling of being involved in decisions.

The assumed focus on purely external motivators keeps executives and employees looking in the wrong places when trying to identify cures to the lingering lack of engagement in today’s workplaces.  While disengagement continues to hover near 70% according to recent Gallup studies (a number relatively unchanged over the past 10 years) managers and employees continue to assume that there is little that can be done to improve motivation at work.  It seems that it is completely dependent on the economy.  In other words, when times are tough and money is scarce there is very little you can do to motivate people.

This is a false assumption explains Facer and the reality is that many people remain highly motivated—even during lean times, and even in organizations struggling to make ends meet.  It is all dependent on your motivational outlook and your perceptions of the environment you are working in.

What motivates you?

Here’s an interesting exercise to try for yourself that will allow you to replicate some of the findings cited in the research.

  • Identify some of the key tasks you are working on as you finish up the year.  Be sure to write down tasks that you are looking forward to getting done as well as the ones that you’ve been procrastinating on. Don’t make the list too long.  About 5-7 items will help you see the pattern.
  • What’s your motivation for finishing each task by the end of the year?  While there are actually six motivational outlooks, let’s look at two broad categories—Sub-optimal motivators (tasks you have to do because of negative consequences or promised rewards) and Optimal motivators (tasks you want to do because they are meaningful and part of a bigger picture you see for yourself and your organization).
  • How many of your tasks fall into each category?  What’s your engagement level with each task as a result?

If you are like most people, you’ll find that your engagement level (and subsequent performance and well-being levels) are highest on the tasks where you see the work aligned with personal and organizational goals.  You’ll find that the tasks being done merely to avoid punishment or gain rewards are at a lesser level.

As leaders, it’s important to connect our individual work—and the work of others—to something bigger and more meaningful than just avoiding punishment and gaining rewards.  Don’t let misconceptions about what motivates you—and others—keep you and your team from performing at their best.

To learn more about Facer’s approach to motivation, be sure to read, Motivation Misunderstanding and Rethinking Motivation: It’s time for a change.  Also check out Facer’s complimentary November 28 webinar, Motivation as a skill: Strategies for managers and employees.  The event is free, courtesy of Cisco WebEx and The Ken Blanchard Companies.

11 thoughts on “Research shows managers and direct reports misidentify what motivates each other

  1. Great points. Often sub-optimal motivators lead us to believe we are engaged but we are really just chasing the prize! More attention should be paid to engagement over the traditional turnover numbers. I would rather see disengaged people leave than mislead that they are fully engaged and stay to create a false level of productivity.

    • Thanks for identifying the difference between just showing up for work and truly being engaged. As you pointed out, sub-optimal motivators may achieve compliance but they will not generate the type of innovation and productivity that comes when people truly care about what they are doing.

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  3. Pingback: Everyone Guesses Everyone Else’s Motivators Incorrectly - RecognizeThis! Blog

  4. Thanks. Very true, that motivation and meaning are personal and multi-dimensional. You and readers might be interested in a Maritz Motivation market study on Employee values. The study set out to determine how satisfied employees were with the reward and recognition they received, and among other things evaluated distinct ‘values segments’ and what was motivating and rewarding to each – quite different!. First of a series of blog posts (second will publish tomorrow linking to slides from recent presention on the study and talking about values and leadership) can be found here: This post also links to more info on the study.

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  6. Pingback: What Motivates Workers? Most Employers Seem to Guess Wrong

  7. The very effective and simplest motivator for me is appreciation and positive feed backs about my work.
    If I could have a small addition; I also think having a time tracking software like Time Doctor could help. You wouldn’t be always available to monitor your staff’s work and check if they need a little help or improvement on their output. This is a kind of tool that will help them boost their productivity. You just have to clearly explain it to them why they have to use it.

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