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3 Things That Motivate Employees More Than Money

Anita Bowness

Principal Product Manager: Cornerstone

How do we motivate people? It's a question that the business world spends a little too much time trying to answer. HR departments, managers, and the C-suite can play with incentives all they want, but we already know the amount of monetary incentive employees need: just enough that money isn't an issue. But that amount of motivation only gets us so far. It should be considered our baseline.

I teach spin classes in my spare time. Some people might picture leading a spin class as simply yelling at a group when they should go faster, when they should slow down, and getting on people if they're slacking, but it isn't about that at all. It's about getting people motivated.

Did you notice a particular language choice there? I didn't say "motivating people," I said "getting people motivated." Motivation is not something external, but rather bringing out something internal. And it's more powerful than any monetary incentive could ever be.

So how do we tap into what gets people motivated? According to research by Daniel H. Pink , there are three types of effective motivators that we can consider: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Not all three apply to everyone, but they are all worth considering when getting your workforce motivated.


As a motivator, autonomy is all about our desire to self-direct. When it comes to spin cycling, I love the ability to work at my own pace, ramping up when I feel like challenging myself and slowing down when I feel I need a break; you get to just go to the beat of what you're capable of, and try and best yourself when you feel ready. There's a sense of accomplishment that you get knowing you did it all yourself.

In the context of autonomy at work, some people prefer to work in their own way, whether that means on their own time or in their own style. A great way to cultivate this type of motivation is by giving employees the time and space they need to take ownership of their work and try new things on their own. This was made famous by Google's "20% time" policy , in which employees were encouraged to spend 20% of their time on personal projects. You might think this would be the source for some of the "weird-Google" innovations like Glass and balloons that distribute internet access , but it spawned some fairly successful ones as well (ever hear of Google Maps or Gmail?).


There's a certain satisfaction in getting great at something, whether or not it's practical. It's why we play musical instruments, learn to spin pens around our fingers, and obsess over the exact technique to brew espresso. One of the things that keeps me spin cycling is the simple desire to get better at it.

Many of your employees are driven by a simple desire to get better at what they do, whether it's an employee in a call center trying to complete more surveys, an accountant trying to commit fewer numerical errors, or a graphic designer wanting to learn new creative techniques. There are few greater arguments for encouraging a strong learning and development program than the fact that it will simply motivate your employees to work more, and work better.


People who are motivated by purpose are driven by serving some kind of goal, community, or cause they find meaningful. That may sound like it's limited to charitable work or work in service of others, but people can find meaning everywhere. In my spin class, I find purpose in helping others achieve their goals, whether those goals are a target weight, a desire to be healthier, or simply to have fun.

Workers can be driven by purpose in terms of the end-result of their work, appeasing investors or solving a problem for the public good. You can leverage this motivator by getting to know your employees and what they're passionate about and finding a way to connect their work directly to that. For instance, if someone in development is particularly driven by ensuring users have a smooth, bug-free experience, you might put them in a role that directly affects end-user experience like UX design or quality assurance.

Get your people motivated

Fundamentally, these three motivators require a few things:

Know your employees well

You need to know your workforce well so you can tailor your motivation strategy to them. Regularly check in on what they are working on and get to know what type of work they like and dislike.

Build a motivating culture

You need to build workers' ability to self-motivate into your company culture. Make the fear of failure a non-issue so your employees feel free to autonomously try new things, master new skills, and work towards what they find meaningful. More importantly, recognize successes when they happen so that others might be inspired.

Communicate often

You need to be in constant communication with your employees so you can maintain a feel for what makes them tick. Regular one-on-one meetings with managers as a part of an ongoing performance management strategy are a great way to achieve this.

Keep all these things in mind, and your employees will be more motivated to get things done, try new and exciting things, and learn new skills to help your organization succeed.

Your Turn: What do you think of these ideas about motivation? Do you have any particular techniques you use to get your employees motivated? Let us know in the comments below!

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