Motivation in Today’s Workplace: The Link to Performance



In today’s hyper-competitive marketplace, understanding what fosters and forwards employee motivation—and, thus, organizational performance—is critical. Based on theories, studies, best practices, case studies and resources about motivation, this solutions-focused research article presents valuable information for the senior HR leader seeking competitive advantage.

In today’s marketplace, where companies seek a competitive edge, motivation is key for talent retention and performance. No matter the economic environment, the goal is to create a workplace that is engaging and motivating, where employees want to stay, grow and contribute their knowledge, experience and expertise.
Motivation is generally defined as the psychological forces that determine the direction of a person’s level of effort, as well as a person’s persistence in the face of obstacles. The direction of a person’s behavior refers to the many possible actions that a person could engage in, while persistence refers to whether, when faced with roadblocks and obstacles, an individual keeps trying or gives up.

The responsibility for motivation is three-fold: it falls on the senior leadership, the direct manager and the employee. Numerous factors are involved, from trust, engagement and values (individual and organizational) to job satisfaction, achievement, acknowledgement and rewards. Motivation is essential for working autonomously, as well as for collaboration and effective teamwork. The ultimate focus of the organization is to successfully retain talent, meet goals and go beyond expectations. It is the role of HR and organizational leaders to foster an environment for excellence. Through a foundation of research, theory, studies and practical examples, this article addresses the questions of what motivates employees, what managers need to do, and what supports motivation and, thus, performance.

What Influences Motivation?
Motivating employees for better performance encompasses these critical factors: employee engagement, Organizational vision and values, management acknowledgment and appreciation of work well done, and overall authenticity of leadership. Chana Anderson, CCP, SPHR-CA, director of HR and a member of the SHRM Employee Relations Special Expertise Panel, says that motivation is influenced equally by the employee and the company: “Motivation and engagement is truly a 50-50 relationship between the employee and employer. Employees are expected to come to the workplace with the intrinsic motivation and desire to be successful, be value-added and contribute to the obtainment of an employer’s vision. Conversely, it is incumbent upon the employer to provide resources, opportunities, recognition and a cohesive work environment for employees to be successful.”

Employee Engagement
Engagement influences motivation. It is reflected in the extent to which employees commit, how hard they work and how long they stay. People join organizations for different reasons, motivated by intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Intrinsic rewards are reflected in actions believed to be important. Examples include an employee who wants to help people by providing excellent customer service or a senior manager who gains a sense of accomplishment from overseeing a large corporation. Intrinsic outcomes include responsibility, autonomy, feelings of accomplishment and the pleasure of doing interesting work. Extrinsic-motivated behavior includes actions performed with the goal to have material or social rewards, with outcomes such as job security, benefits, vacation time and public recognition. It is the responsibility of managers to motivate employees, with the goal for employees to contribute to the organization. Managers can best motivate employees by offering rewards that are meaningful to them.

Vision and Values
Employees are often motivated differently. To develop a work environment that promotes motivation, organizations need to know what is important to their employees and then to emphasize these factors. In fact, some companies and researchers are beginning to look at “work spirituality”—not in a religious sense, but in a sense that what an employee does aligns with his or her greater sense of life and purpose. Aside from monetary gain, work provides people with fulfillment on various levels, from earning a living and “doing good work” to aspiring to a vision and ultimately having an impact on the quality of life. These reasons can change over time in response to changes in people’s home life and responsibilities. Further, in response to drastic economic changes and natural disasters, companies can change over time as well.

Management Acknowledgment and Appreciation
How employees are treated is a strong determinant of employee motivation and performance. Edward E. Lawler III, author and consultant for human resource management, emphasizes that “treating people right is fundamental to creating organizational effectiveness and success. It is also easier said than done.” According to Lawler, this includes “a highly complex set of actions on the part of both organizations and employees. Organizations must develop ways to treat their employees so that they are motivated and satisfied; employees must behave in ways to help their organizations become effective and high-performing.” This winning combination for performance requires a partnership between the organization and the employees. Lawler states: “One can’t succeed without the other. To provide people with meaningful work and rewards, organizations need to be successful. And to be successful, organizations need high-performing individuals. The challenge is to design organizations that perform at high levels and treat people in ways that are rewarding and satisfying.” To describe this mutually beneficial relationship, Lawler uses the term virtuous spiral, a relationship that occurs when the organization values its employees, and in return, workers are committed to high performance.

Leadership and Making a Difference
In today’s pressure-cooker environment, performance is carefully noted at all levels of the organization. No matter an individual’s title, everyone has the opportunity to lead in some capacity and have a positive impact on performance. Understanding the value that can be achieved through different roles is one way of providing motivation, performance and thus leadership skills. A recent article published on Knowledge@Wharton, titled “Putting a Face to a Name: The Art of Motivating Employees,” emphasizes that workers have better results when they can identify with those they serve. Specifically, face-to-face interactions and task significance (“what I do makes a difference”) are key drivers for motivation and performance. Research by Adam Grant, Ph.D., a Wharton management professor, indicates that making human connections is critical for motivation, leadership and high job performance. He found that face-to-face interactions—no matter how superficial—can lead to significant improvements in performance, and that motivation and performance increase simply by an employee’s awareness of the impact of his or her job on others. Dr. Grant has observed this result through studies of all types of jobs and roles in the workplace, from customer service representatives, managers, nurses, doctors and medical technicians to security guards, engineers, salespeople, police officers and fire fighters—based on when people can directly see the impact of their efforts.

Mini Case Study
In a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Dr. Grant found that lifeguards at a community recreation center who read about how their ability to avoid fatalities made a difference were stronger leaders/performers. Their work improved by 40% in contrast to lifeguards who merely learned that lifeguarding can be personally enriching. Grant points out that in today’s economy, where work is often virtual without the end user physically present, “it is important for employers to build in systems that reinforce employees’ awareness of whom they are helping.”6 As HR leaders work on processes and systems designed to improve motivation and performance, it is important to be cognizant of the issue of technology and how it can create distance between employees and the end users of their work. Dr. Grant suggests that focus on the mission of the organization is one way to overcome the challenge of a virtual workplace

and lack of direct interaction and is a successful strategy for creating the energy for motivation necessary to achieve high performance and quality of service.

Leadership for Motivation
To reach the hearts and minds of employees, leaders need to be authentic with an impelling vision. “It is exceedingly important for a leader of any organization to communicate his or her vision constantly to ensure that there is no doubt about the direction a team is heading,” says Ken Blanchard, world-renowned management coach. He emphasizes: “One of the most destructive traits a leader can have today is arrogance—acting like you’ve got it together all the time. On the other hand, one of the most endearing qualities a leader can have is to be in touch with his or her vulnerability. It’s that side of a leader that keeps the vision from crumbling under the pressure of circumstance.”7 In addition, leaders need to connect the organization’s vision and values to the employees’ day-to-day work and help them see how the work they do every day connects to the bigger picture.

The 2009 study Best Companies for Leadership conducted by Bloomberg and the Hay Group reveals that leading companies were focused on leadership even during the recent economic downtown. This annual study ranks the best companies for leadership and examines how they develop leaders. The 2009 study found a shift in what the top 20 leading organizations value regarding leadership. Specifically, the most valued qualities in leaders are strategic thinking and inspiring leadership. In a press release, John Larrere, national director of Hay Group’s Leadership and Talent Practice, and co-leader of the Best Companies for Leadership Study, stated: “For organizations to succeed, they will need to understand what key leadership elements are paramount in driving their organizations toward growth. It’s more than just getting people to produce the right outcomes. It’s about getting them to be passionate about their work and grooming them to handle the challenges ahead. The Best Companies for Leadership have figured this out.”

According to this study, companies are now focusing their efforts on positioning for the future. To do so, 94% of the best companies have leadership development programs to enable employees to deliver on goals/strategies, 90% provide all employees with the opportunity to develop and practice the capabilities needed to lead others, and 87% have a sufficient number of internal candidates ready to assume open leadership positions. In fact, 94% of the best companies actively manage a pool of successors for mission-critical roles, 83% invest a great deal in their people, and 80% promote growth opportunities. In addition, 95% use corporate social responsibility to recruit employees, 66% have a high proportion of women in senior leadership, 91% make it easy for people to work from home, and 91% have an appreciation of global issues as a key job requirement. Finally, the best companies for leadership focus on employee engagement through commitment and discretionary effort and on employee enablement, with optimized roles and a supportive environment, leading to financial success, customer satisfaction and employee performance—all to drive organizational performance.

In today’s economy, leaders need to be mindful of economic pressures when looking for ways to motivate employees. Some organizations find cost-effective ways to provide opportunities through “developmental assignments,” where people can grow their skills in other areas to be ready for promotions when they may occur. A good manager will take the time to consider ways to motivate employees, whether performance levels are good or need improvement. For the leader, it is beneficial to take a step back and consider, on a personal level, what is motivating oneself. Important questions to ask are:

1) what are your own values;
2) what keeps you motivated;
3) how are your own engagement levels;
4) are you committed to the values of your company; and
5) do you take pride in your work and in your organization? By taking the time to examine these questions and thoughtfully answer them, a leader can gain a refreshed and even enlightened viewpoint to perform better—both for him/herself and for his or her staff—and be able to better optimize for improvement. By identifying three areas that need most attention, for example, a leader can develop a plan and put it into action.

Employees need to have acknowledgment and respect and know that their contributions are valued. It cannot be stressed enough how demotivating it can be when managers do not recognize, acknowledge or appreciate employees and their hard work. Two strategies that can help motivate employees are :

1) to provide training (including current job, new technologies and the ability to keep up with changes in the employees’ areas of expertise) and
2) promotional

opportunities (promote from within). Positive and supportive leadership clearly makes the difference for an engaged and motivated workforce. In an interview with Hospitals and Health Networks, Jo Manion, R.N., Ph.D., points to the bottom line for hospital and patient care, as outlined in her book, The Engaged Workforce: Proven Strategies to Build a Positive Health Care Workforce.12 Since excellent health care is critical for everyone at different points in life, employee motivation that results in excellent patient care is one example of motivation that all can relate to on personal and professional levels.

Inspired Staff Make the Difference in Difficult Times
In the health care field, engaged and motivated employees make the difference in patient care. From her years as a nurse and executive working in hospitals, Dr. Manion emphasizes that it is hospital leaders who hold the key to promoting passion in employees for their work, thus retaining essential talent and saving the organization money. By establishing a workplace that promotes well-being, leadership can inspire staff, resulting in loyalty to the organization

and to the patients and their families. “If you have engaged workers who are happy to be there, who feel happy about what they do, who feel respected, who feel honored, then they treat people the same way: It ripples. Patients can pick up unhappiness in employees in a nanosecond.” She urges leaders to know and understand their employees. Also, through workforce mapping, HR leaders can better understand the demographics of the workforce, learn who plans to retire in five years and then be able to look to the future for retention and hiring. The quality of patient service depends on an inspired and motivated staff.
Source: The Engaged Workforce: Proven Strategies to Build a Positive Health Care Workforce (American Hospital Association, 2009)

Motivational Theories
As HR professionals seek to support their organizations in attracting and retaining the best and brightest talent, motivational theories can offer insight into how to motivate employees, what is important and what the rewards may be—with the ultimate goal of improved and/or sustained performance by individual employees and the organization as a whole. Motivation is at the heart of performance, essential for success for both the organization and its workforce, as a group and as individuals. Dr. Teresa A. Daniel and Dr. Gary S. Metcalf, authors of a SHRM white paper “The Science of Motivation,” emphasize that “people join organizations for specific reasons and usually with some purpose in mind.” The white paper highlights the following theories that have shaped the concept of motivation in the workplace:14

• Expectancy Theory: Victor H. Vroom’s theory suggests that motivation is high when employees believe that high levels of effort lead to high performance and high performance leads to attainment of desired outcomes.
• Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: People seek to satisfy five basic needs: physiological, safety, belongingness, self-esteem and self-actualization needs. Abraham Maslow placed these needs in a pyramid, with the most basic on the bottom and self-actualization at the top. When the lower-level needs are met, the next higher level begins to motivate behavior.
• Herzberg’s Motivator-Hygiene Theory: This theory from Frederick Herzberg focuses on two factors applicable to the workplace:
  1) meeting basic expectations (hygiene factors) and
  2) leading to increased performance (motivation factors). Examples of basic needs are a comfortable working environment, adequate pay, good relationships with co-workers and effective supervision. Motivation factors for high job satisfaction include opportunities for recognition, advancement and professional growth.
• McClelland’s Needs for Achievement, Affiliation and Power: In this theory from David McClelland, each person has three needs:
  1) achievement—strong desire to perform well;
  2) affiliation—being liked, having positive interpersonal relationships; and
  3) power—the extent to which an individual desires control or influence on others. People have these needs to varying degrees.
• Equity Theory: Formulated by J. Stacy Adams, this theory is about people’s perceptions of fairness of their work outcomes in relation to their work inputs.It suggests that motivation is influenced by comparing one’s own outcome/input ratio with others’. If an individual feels that the ratio is unfair (e.g., underappreciated, paid less), that individual’s performance may decrease. In contrast, where equity is perceived, employees are more motivated to continue contributing their current levels of input for their current levels of outcomes. Motivation is usually the highest when employees perceive that they are treated with equity.
• Goal-Setting Theory: Ed Locke and Gary Latham are the leading researchers of this theory. The focus is on motivating workers to contribute by meeting goals set to improve the overall performance of the organization. They suggest that goals that employees work to meet are prime determinants of their motivation and therefore performance. Goals need to be both specific (quantitative and measurable) and difficult (hard, yet not impossible).

Maslow’s work on the hierarchy of needs showed that when individuals strive to fulfill their potential, they are happier. An article in the Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship examined the influence of Maslow’s humanistic views on business training and the challenges of motivating employees to learn.15 Learning and new skills remain an essential part of organizational strategy to achieve competitive advantage. A benchmark survey conducted at the

height of the recent credit crisis found that 50% of companies were looking at technology to improve their customer satisfaction and business success, including retaining staff and providing training to upgrade skills and attract the best caliber of talent. The following example of the pharmaceutical company Pfizer illustrates the criticality of professional development. To develop key talent and engage the company’s global workforce to improve its competitiveness, Pfizer focuses on developing “Next Generation Learning Tools.”

Mini Case Study
In a survey of its workforce, Pfizer learned that 78% of respondents were reluctant to improve their education due to travel time to class and work commitments. To address the need to retain talent and improve skills, Pfizer partnered with Hibernia College for a Master of Science in Pharmaceutical Medicine program for physicians and nonmedical professionals seeking to move into leadership positions. Providing flexibility, this program allowed for an interactive self-paced study, online recorded lectures and live online tutorials for direct contact with faculty. Pfizer gained business benefits: selection for the program was seen as a reward by employees, and 76% of students said they felt valued by the company. As a result of the company investing in them, employees were more likely to say that they will stay with Pfizer. The online master’s program is seen as a strong vehicle to help the company “build the knowledge, technical skills and leadership capabilities of Pfizer’s employees,” noted Soeren Rasmussen, senior director at the Department of the Chief Medical Officer at Pfizer.
Another resource on motivational theories is the book Work Motivation: History, Theory, Research, and Practice. It offers in-depth information about behavioral science frameworks for motivation in the workplace, with a chronological review of research and theories from the end of the 19th century to the present. As pointed out by author Gary P. Latham, Ph.D., a leader in the field of motivation, the practice of science is essential for “predicting, understanding, and influencing the motivation of people in organizational settings.”

New Approaches
In addition to classic motivational theories, a number of recent writings contribute new ideas to the literature on workplace motivation:

1. Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. In their 2002 book, authors Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee bring together decades of research on leadership. They argue: “The fundamental task of leaders is to prime good feeling in those they lead, and that occurs when a leader creates resonance—a reservoir of positivity that frees the best in people. At its root, the primal job of leadership is emotional.” This theory has significance for bringing forth motivation and commitment in leadership and employees for attainment of organizational goals. In addition, Goleman’s writing on emotional intelligence includes a critical facet applicable to motivation: relationship management/inspiration. “Leaders who inspire both create resonance and move people with a compelling vision or shared mission. Such leaders embody what they ask of others and are able to articulate a shared mission in a way that inspires others to follow. They offer a sense of common purpose beyond day-to-day tasks, making work exciting.”
2. Psychological Capital: Developing the Human Competitive Edge. In their 2007 book, researchers Fred Luthans, Carolyn M. Youssef and Bruce J. Avolio present their PsyCap theory with a compelling view of factors critical to motivation and performance. Resilience is a key component of PsyCap, defined as “the capacity to rebound or bounce back from adversity, conflict, failure, or even positive events, progress and increased responsibility.” The PsyCap resiliency process is not a linear experience; rather, the assets and risk factors—as a group—are both cumulative and interactive in nature, with implications for performance and the development of resiliency of leaders, employees and organizations. For example, confidence, hope and optimism are assets in the resiliency process. The resilient leader has the ability to grow in times of turmoil, managing and integrating assets, risk factors and values. Such leaders use resiliency as a tool to assist employees to see difficult times as opportunities for advancement (career resiliency), thus owning more of the responsibility for success for themselves and for the organization.19 As Luthans notes, “The current reality is not if employees will need to draw from their psychological capital resilience in order to recover and reinvent themselves, but when.”
3. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In his 2009 book, author Daniel H. Pink states, “The secret to high performance and satisfaction—at work, at school, and at home—is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.” Pink challenges the organizational “carrots and sticks” approach to motivation, noting that traditional rewards (“if-then”) do not give people what they want and, in fact, tend to diminish intrinsic motivation and performance and can encourage unethical behaviors and foster short-term thinking. The three elements of true motivation—autonomy, mastery and purpose—will lead to greater performance, particularly when the objective is in the service of a higher cause.

A Study on Employee Engagement and Motivation
The Ashridge Business School, one of the world’s leading business schools, conducted a study about motivation from the employee viewpoint. While financial rewards were often mentioned, the most common were intrinsic motivators. The top most important motivator was the work itself, followed by the need for work to be challenging and interesting as well as valued and recognized by the organization. The key motivators were praise and recognition from the manager and the organization, and celebration of success. The study also found that a very important theme is the employee desire for autonomy and freedom to do his or her job, the ability to make decisions and the authority to deliver the work in a way the employee considers the best. Another important employee motivatoris being trusted to get the job done—without being micro-managed. Other key themes are communication, objectives and goals, and a shared vision. Ultimately, the quality of leadership is paramount to good employee morale. Poor leadership will result in poor employee engagement and thus in poor performance. In addition to the critical function of the manager as a role model, the following key relationships are identified as essential for motivational success—all inter-related and contributing toward feelings of motivation:
1. Organizational structure and processes—performance management, reward systems, training, interesting work—must be supported by a clear vision, strong communication processes, quality decision-making and an organizational culture of mutual respect.
2. Organizations need to pay attention to the working environment. For example, too many meetings and poor meeting management will have a negative impact on employees’ level of motivation.
3. The individual employee needs to know what motivates him or her and be aware of how work satisfies these needs. The manager and/or organization can support this process by facilitating opportunities for employees to meet, talk and share their views with colleagues and managers.
4. Colleagues: Working with people who respect and support each other is positively motivating.

A New Model for Employee Motivation
In their 2002 book, Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices, researchers Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria identify four basic emotional needs/drives. These drives, based on research in cross-disciplinary fields such as biology, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, are:

1) acquire (obtain scarce goods, including intangibles such as social status);
2) bond (form connections with individuals and groups);
3) comprehend (master the world around us); and
4)defend (protect against external threats and promote justice).

Using these four drives, Nitin Norhia, Boris Groysberg and Linda-Eling Lee developed a new employee model for motivation, published in Harvard Business Review. They conducted two major studies to find out what actions managers can take to satisfy these drives and increase employee motivation. The study surveyed about 5,000 employees in two global companies (a financial company and an IT services firm), as well as employees from Fortune 500 companies, about commonly measured work indicators: engagement, commitment, satisfaction and intention to quit.

These studies revealed that organizational levers of motivation can influence certain drivers and motivational indicators. For example, a reward system can satisfy the drive to acquire by discriminating between poor and good performers, tying rewards to performance and providing opportunities for advancement. A good example is that of Sonoco, a manufacturer of packaging for industrial and consumer goods, which took this approach with a pay-for-performance system.

The company established very clear links between performance and rewards based on individual and group metrics. As a result, employee satisfaction and engagement improved, and the company was named by Hewitt Associates in 2005 as one of the top 20 talent management organizations in the United States.
The studies also found that company culture is the most effective way for an organization to forward the drive to bond. Specifically, organizational culture can create a strong sense of camaraderie by promoting openness, collaboration, friendship and teamwork. The drive to comprehend is promoted by designing jobs that are meaningful and foster a sense of contribution to the organization. Performance management and resource allocation are tools that can increase the transparency of all processes, thereby emphasizing fairness and building trust.24 Ultimately, culture, performance, engagement, job design and reward systems need be aligned to maximize motivation.

Recognition and Rewards Programs As emphasized earlier, for employees to remain motivated, recognition is essential. Direct line managers have one of the most important roles regarding recognition. Their communication style—or lack of communication—stands out as critical for successful recognition. Recognizing good performance is also a key factor in talent retention. Different types of reward and incentive programs are effective at motivating employees. Motivation may be promoted through monetary and nonmonetary rewards.

A recent SHRM survey report found that 58% of HR professionals overall indicated that their organizations offered some form of incentive bonus plans: 50% offered a bonus plan to executive employees and 45% to nonexecutive employees. Incentive bonus plans can promote high performance because the bonus is usually tied directly to company and/or individual performance. In addition, some benefits programs include employee recognition. Seventy percent of HR professionals indicated that their organizations recognized milestones such as birthdays and service anniversaries. More than half of HR professionals said their organizations offered some type of noncash, companywide performance awards such as gift certificates or an extra day off.

Twelve Important Ways to Motivate Employees
• Provide employees with the information and resources they need to do a good job.
• Ask employees for their input by involving them in decisions that affect their jobs.
• Find out directly from employees what motivates them.
• Personally congratulate employees for their excellent work.
• Recognize the needs of employees.
• Establish good channels of communication—be (physically) accessible and available.
• Use performance as the basis for promotion.
• Have a promote-from-within policy.
• Publicly recognize employees for good work (if culturally appropriate to do so publicly).
• Include recognition as part of morale-building activities to celebrate group success.
• Have clear goals.
• Foster a sense of community.

Source: Adapted from Top 20 ways to motivate employees. (September 2008). SuperVision, 69/9, 26.

Motivating the Millennial Generation
As highlighted in the SHRM Research Quarterly, “The Multigenerational Workforce,” the Millennial generation brings forth new challenges for motivation and engagement. This group of young workers has a distinctly different set of expectations than other generations.26 Cam Marson, author of Motivating the “What’s in it for me” Workforce, notes that while Millennials expect to be accommodated by their employer, it is strongly recommended that young workers learn everything they can from the older generations. He points out that the Millennial workers have a responsibility in the work relationship, too, and that it is not all about them.

Further, in a unique position in time, Millennials are the first generation to be part of a truly global economy. Most have had access to technology all of their lives. A 2010 study by Accenture explored how students and young workers in 13 countries use technology in their personal and professional lives. The findings are important for HR and organizational leaders because there is a direct line to talent management. The study points out that companies that “fail to embrace Millennial behavior are at risk of failing to attract and retain new hires, while also seeing their competitive edge erode from lack of innovation in information technology.” Regardless of country, Millennials are jumping ahead of the boundaries of corporate IT. They expect to use their own technology/devices in the workplace, and 45% of Millennials globally use social networking sites at work, even if there is a corporate policy prohibiting it. Additionally, 72% of Millennials in India, 52% in the United States and 45% in China say that an important factor in their choice of employer is the organization’s use of state-of-the-art equipment.28 Thus, to be competitive today, HR and organizational leaders must understand what motivates the Millennial generation and learn to use these factors to the advantage of both the employee and the employer.

Global HRM and Motivation
In an interview about motivation, SHRM talked with Kenneth Somers, a member of the SHRM Global Special Expertise Panel. Somers has more than 30 years of experience in senior HR leadership roles, working both domestically and internationally in global organizations. This exchange offers a close-up view of key aspects about motivation and performance in today’s global marketplace.

SHRM: In the global HRM context, when you think of motivation—regarding the individual employee and as a key factor for organizational performance—what are some of the top issues that come to mind and why are they important in today’s global workplace?

Somers: This is a place where the research and my own anecdotal experience coalesce. Employees everywhere are recession and RIF-weary. Those whose positions have not been affected by reductions are looking for signs that “it” is over. Neither businesses nor governments have defined the “new normal.” Most people are hunkered down and only marginally engaged. The corollary is that businesses will be impeded in their attempts to tap into employees’ discretionary capacity.

SHRM: In your experience in the global marketplace, what are some of the primary motivators for employees and why are they important for HR leaders and organizational leaders to know?

Somers: I believe there are more motivators we hold in common than those that differentiate us. In my experience, employees everywhere want to feel respected and treated fairly, to work for an employer in which they have pride and to have an opportunity to grow. What is critical is for HR and business leaders to understand how these universals manifest in varying cultures. Understanding and applying those learnings with sincerity and consistency is the table stakes for successfully motivating performance across borders.

SHRM: What are some of the ways that HR leaders can create a workplace that is motivating in a global company, and why would this make a difference for overall performance—of employees and, thus, the organization?

Somers: There are many things that employers can do to stimulate greater engagement. If you agree that the bigger challenge is to create sustainable engagement, it then follows that sustainable engagement flows from consistent, high-quality people leadership. Employers need to take these steps:

• Communicate with staff on a regular basis: Everyone understands the world has changed. Explain what is going on, how it affects the business and the resulting impact on people. Tell the truth without drama. But even more importantly, tell a story about where you are going. Engagement also flows from people buying into a future and wanting to be part of it.
• Follow communications with actions that are consistent with the messaging. If part of the future story is to capture market share from a previously untapped segment, create and implement measures that show staff you meant what you said and are acting on the message.
• Share status reports. This is part of ongoing communications but is particularly focused on letting people know “how we’re doing.” Celebrate successes and be candid about needed course corrections.
• Recognize achievements. You may not be able to award big bonuses or significant merit adjustments, but a lot can be gained by saying thank you and encouraging further development and success.
• Give feedback. Many leaders would prefer to crawl under their desks in times like these. We need to be visible to be able to accomplish the prior points. And when it comes to managing performance, remember that your teams know who is pulling their weight and who is not. Engagement also depends on people perceiving a leader’s ability to step up and do the right thing—especially when it is hard. While the particular “how’s” of these ideas will vary from country to country and from culture to culture, I think the principles are fairly universal.
SHRM: Finally, in a global workplace, what are three of the most important ways a manager can portray behaviors and attitudes that relate to employee motivation?
Somers: This is simple to say and, of course, harder to actually do. But it boils down to these:
• Model the corporate values—all the time. If business leaders behave consistent with the espoused corporate values, those in the population who don’t subscribe will self-select out.
• Listen with genuine intent. People want to be heard. They will not always agree with your decisions, but they will be more accepting if they feel they have had a chance to express views and/or concerns.
• Deliver on the commitments you make. In many geographies, you get only one chance to demonstrate your reliability.


Organizational success cannot be achieved without strong leadership and a focused, thoughtful work environment that promotes motivation. No matter the industry, HR leaders need to be in touch with what is important to employees and to work with senior management to foster a motivated workplace based on trust, recognition and acknowledgment, for optimal engagement and performance.

1  SHRM HR Glossary:
2 Daniel, T. A., & Metcalf, G. S. (2005, May 1). The science of motivation [SHRM white paper]. Retrieved from
3 Stanley, T. L. (2008, March). A motivated workplace is a marvelous sight. SuperVision, 59/3, 5-9.
4 Lawler, E. E. III. (2003). Treat people right! How organizations and individuals can propel each other into a virtuous spiral of success. San
Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Knowledge@Wharton. (2010, February 17). Putting a face to a name: The art of motivating employees. Retrieved February 18, 2010, from
6 Ibid.
7 Blanchard, K., & Shula, D. (2001). The little book of coaching: Motivating people to be winners. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
8 Bloomberg Group. (2010, February). 2009 best companies for leadership. Retrieved February 24, 2010, from
9  Ibid.
10 Dewhurst, S. (2009, April/May). How to regain your motivation for work. Strategic Communication Management, 13/3, 14. 
11 Ibid.
12 Santamour, B., (2009, March). Inspired staff can see you through hard times. Hospitals & Health Networks, 83/3, 10.
13 Ibid.
14 Daniel, T. A., & Metcalf, G. S. (2005, May 1). The science of motivation [SHRM white paper]. Retrieved from
15 Wilson, I., & Madsen, S. R. (2008, April). The influence of Maslow’s humanistic views on employee’s motivation to learn. Journal of Applied Management
and Entrepreneurship, 13/2, 46-63.
16 Overton, L. (2009, February). Delivering business results. E.learning Age, 6-9.
17 Latham, G. P. (2007). Work motivation: History, theory, research, and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
18 Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2002). Primal leadership: Realizing the power of emotional intelligence. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
19 Luthans, F., Youssef, C. M., & Avolio, B. J. (2007). Psychological capital: Developing the human capital edge. New York: Oxford University Press.
20 Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books.
21 Dent, F., & Holton, V. (2009, November). Employee engagement and motivation. Training Journal, 37.
22 Nohria, N., Groysberg, B., & Lee, L-E. (2008, July-August). Employee motivation: A powerful new model. Harvard Business Review, 86/7-8, 78-84.
23 Ibid.
24 Ibid.
25 Society for Human Resource Management. (2009). 2009 employee benefits: A survey report by SHRM. Alexandria, VA: Author.
26 Society for Human Resource Management. (2009). The multigenerational workforce: Opportunity for competitive success. SHRM Research Quarterly,1. 
27 Marson, C. (2005). Motivating the “what’s in it for me?” workforce: Managing across the generational divide. Charlotte, NC: Marston Communications.
28 Accenture. (2010, February 10). Young people in China and India are reshaping corporate information technologies. Retrieved March 3, 2010, from