How Motivation at Work Is Shifting

3 min read

Motivation is, of course, a central concept for management. There are numerous theories of motivation, and all managers who hope to stay managers need to have at least a reasonable idea of what is motivating their employees.

Source: Dan Cristian Paduret / Pexels

The idea of doing socially valuable work can have strong appeal.

Source: Dan Cristian Paduret / Pexels

While at the macro level, there are broad theories that explain human behavior, at the micro level in the business world, I came to feel that employee motivation was quite an individual matter.

Over my decades in management, I have had experience with many different employees who were motivated by many different things: by money, by praise, by professional growth, by being part of a cohesive team, or by being left alone so they could work with maximum autonomy, to name some of the common recurring themes.

The growth of purpose

But there’s one significant motivating factor that I didn’t nearly see as much of then (I retired from the corporate world in 2012) that I hear a lot more about in my discussions with younger people today: purpose. The idea of doing meaningful work. The importance of doing work that matters. The desire to work on initiatives, or for organizations, that will in some way help make the world a better place. This could involve, for example, climate, clean energy, housing, hunger… plus many other constructive social causes.

This personal observation was reinforced recently as I was reading an article about motivating employees in today’s workplace.

“The key to motivating employees lies in one word: purpose. To break the boundary of ‘just a day job,’” the author (Jonathan Davies) stated, and to have individuals become more passionate about their work, “employees need to feel that they are making an impact.”

More focus on social benefits

I felt this was nicely and concisely said. And it feels to me a substantive change from, say, 20 years ago when I was in the midst of my own corporate career. I’m not saying that doing useful, constructive work didn’t matter then—to some extent, it surely did—but it feels like the weight of this priority has shifted into greater prominence.

I’m by nature wary of absolute statements. As I noted earlier, there’s a sizable individual component to motivation, and life circumstances can naturally impact what drives one. When I was young and single, I was hardly motivated by money at all. Not many years later, when I had a growing family and a mortgage, I was highly motivated by money.

Times change, and understandably, so do human needs. But my point is that in the aggregate, it feels like we’re seeing a motivational evolution in the workplace, one that places less emphasis on traditional goals, like money and power, and greater emphasis on the socially positive aspects of work.

A younger generation, frustrated and deeply concerned by the massive problems older generations have bequeathed them, seems more focused on making career choices to help address these problems.

As time goes on, I’d be most interested to see serious academic research on this topic.

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