Does Money Really Motivate?

Posted on by Mark Fernandez

In WA’s two/three speed economy, it is an important question to ask when your business might be in one of the lower gears. Business is feeling the pressure of high wages and it’s unlikely we’ll see a significant drop in the near future. It’s expensive to attract and retain staff; a competitive salary package is one of the prime attractants for finding staff. Once you find your new (expensive) staff member, how do you motivate them to maximise your investment return? One common method is to continue with the same tactic you used to attract them, and that’s to shovel money into their back pocket. Is that viable for you?

Motivation is considered a key part of employee engagement, which is a popular term these days and is similar to the concept of job satisfaction or organisational commitment. Motivation has been defined as the forces within a person that affect his or her direction, intensity and persistence of voluntary behaviour (McShane et al. 2010, pg 168). Having an employee who puts in a high level of effort (intensity) for a long time (persistence) towards the goals we set (direction) is a positive notion and I’m sure something we would like to encourage. Voluntary was bolded because we want employee behaviour that is positive and voluntary. As a manager, I prefer employees have ownership and I can stay reasonably hands off. So if we agree motivation is important, does money really motivate?

The short answer is yes. Money is unsurprisingly a motivator, however the long answer suggests it isn’t necessarily the best motivator to maximise productivity and benefits to your business. My anecdotal experience from dealing with thousands of candidates would suggest most people have a minimum amount of money they require to make ends meet. The assumption for this advice is that your employees have reached that level and that amount is covered by their salary. If however they can’t make their mortgage payments and their kids are looking a bit thin, then no amount of praise will motivate as well as bumping up their pay cheque.

In the analysis of 120 years of research covering 92 studies and 15,000 individuals on the topic, it was determined that the association between salary level and job satisfaction was very weak; about 2 per cent (Judge, et al. 2010). This work doesn’t suggest that pay isn’t a motivator, it suggests that higher levels of pay don’t necessarily bring higher levels of job satisfaction and motivation. Another way to look at this would be to say money is what brings them to work but doesn’t necessarily bring out their best work.

On the basis that money isn’t the best motivator, what are the alternatives? The research on motivational theory is extensive and there are a number of theories which are considered sound but not perfect. A relatively modern theory is the four drive theory of motivation which states everyone has the innate drive to acquire, bond, learn and defend. To apply this to motivating your workforce, an organisation should strive to fulfill all four drives to a reasonable degree as opposed to concentrating on one (Lawrence & Nohria 2002) and it has been shown that a balanced approached is far more successful than concentrating on a single drive.

The single drive that most organisations do concentrate on is the drive to acquire, which could be satisfied by financial compensation, a corner office or improved position in the company. It’s the easiest to fulfill as it tends to have the most tangible inputs to fulfillment and is far easier to quantify and compare in rewards and recognition programs. At the end of the day, it’s about the money when fulfilling this drive and there is nothing wrong with being motivated by money or wanting more of it. However, to truly motivate the workforce, let us have a brief look at the other three drives and how we appeal to them.

The drive to bond relates to our need to form social relationships. Think of the value and importance we give the strong bonds we form in our family and social lives. Relate these bonds to work in the form of culture and you have a powerful way to boost motivation and give employees the feeling of belonging to the organisation. This can be achieved by valuing collaboration and teamwork, encouraging friendship and mutual reliance between co-workers and encouraging information sharing amongst colleagues as opposed to hoarding.

The drive to learn refers to our curiosity and need to understand what is around us. It is best seen in the workplace by the need for a challenging role with meaning. The phrase “looking for a new challenge” is used often in recruitment but it has real meaning when viewing it from this point of view. Employees want to be challenged, they want to learn and they want to know what they do has meaning. So share with them why they are doing something, ask them what they think a challenging target would be and allow them to be involved in the decision process.

The drive to defend usually refers to our drive to protect ourselves physically and socially. It’s our ‘fight or flight’ response and is the only drive that is reactive. In the workplace, this doesn’t just manifest in overt aggressive/defensive behaviors but also in the desire to have justice, our own say and to have clear goals. When the drive is fulfilled, employees feel secure and confident in their roles while when it isn’t, negative feelings of mistrust and resentment manifest. Making sure there is transparency and fairness in processes, granting rewards and assignments will produce a positive influence from this drive and avoid a negative response.

The main point is that you should attempt to satisfy all four drives, not one. So while money does motivate, it might not be what is needed in your workplace to increase motivational drive. The ideas above can be more difficult to implement but the payoff of a motivated and satisfied workforce is well worth the effort. You will find many hidden bonuses to your business in the above processes too. Staff will surprise you with choosing bigger goals or coming up with new ideas, purely because you asked them!

On a practical note, motivation or anything to do with employees is never going to be a one size fits all approach. You will have to use your judgment and experience and each employee will have their own level of need for each of the drives.

References/Further reading for fun

Judge, TA,  Piccolo, RF, Podsakoff NP, Shaw, JC & Rich, BL 2010, The relationship between pay and job satisfaction: A meta-analysis of the literature, Journal of Vocational Behaviour, Vol. 77, pp 157-167.

Lawrence, PR & Nohria N 2002, Driven: How human nature shapes our choices, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco

McShane, SL, Olekalns, M & Travaglione, T 2010, Organisational Behaviour on the Pacific Rim, 3rd Edn, McGraw Hill, North Ryde, N.S.W.

Nohria, N, Groysberg, B & Lee, L 2008, ‘Employee motivation: a powerful new model’, Harvard Business Review, Vol.86 (7-8),  pp.78-84. Available from: Health Business Elite [23 September 2012].

Hamish Borthen

Director Duff Recruitment

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