How to Improve Employee Motivation

1/31/2019 Employee Engagement

As a manager, you have to understand that needs are complex and change between environments. Building simple mental models are essential to creating a strong and positive workplace culture and Improving Employee Motivation.

What is Employee Motivation?

Seeing as you're here for Employee Motivation, let's reduce the scope a bit to Motivation in the Workplace. There's actually a better term for this: Employee Engagement.

William Kahn kicked coined the term "Workplace Engagement" in a 1990 journal article and defined engagement as follows:

Engaged people are mentally, physically and emotionally involved in their work - William Kahn

Over time, the term has matured and we now prefer the following definition of Employee Engagement:

Employee Engagement is the emotional commitment an employee has to the organisation and its goals.

Why does Engagement matter?

The benefits of high workplace motivation are not trivial and are highly sought after:

  • High Productivity and a sense of Urgency
  • High Creativity
  • Willingness to accept Accountability
  • Excellent Customer Service
  • High Discretionary Effort

With low engagement, there is a lose-lose situation for the Employee and the Employer. The employer loses out on productivity, customer satisfaction and ultimately, profits. The employee loses out on learning, career progression and fulfilment. It's obviously in both of their interests to improve Engagement. In order to improve it, let's dive a bit deeper into the human psyche.

What drives Engagement

A great framework for understanding this is Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. The model is quite simplistic but it illustrates the point that there is a sequence in which needs have to be met in order to climb to higher levels of engagement and creativity. It's also very important to note that the placement of these needs in the hierarchy will differ based on culture or region.

In Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the order of the needs is Survival, Security, Belonging, Esteem and Self-Actualisation.

Survival is the ability to provide for day-to-day necessities. It's mainly a concern of low wage, entry-level workers. The easiest way to increase their engagement is with a higher wage.

Security focuses on continued employment. It's about long-term survival which in the workplace means keeping your job. You can address this need by being clear about job expectations. If people know that they're doing their jobs well then they feel secure in them. It's thus very important to communicate expectations and recognise good performance.

Belonging is about feeling like a part of the company. It comes from our tribal heritage. Building a strong cohesion with your company DNA, values and mission, as well as strong relationships between staff, is what satisfies this set of needs in order to boost engagement.

Esteem needs are ego needs or status needs which require getting recognition, status, importance, and respect from others. All humans have a need to feel respected; this includes the need to have self-esteem and self-respect. It means providing recognition for a job well done but goes further. It's where coaching from a manager becomes very important and managers need to constantly stroke the ego of their employees in order to inspire them to push themselves harder and further. To improve engagement at this level, train all managers including yourself on how to be a great coach.

Self-Actualisation is achieved when you find meaning in what you do. This level of need refers to what a person's full potential is and the realisation of that potential. In the context of employment, it is also about finding meaning in our work and becoming one with it. Helping your team reach this level means finding people who align with your mission, values and purpose in the first place. It also means finding people who will reach their full potential within your organisation. Then it takes great leadership from all managers to share this purpose with the company.

"What a person can be, he must be" - Abraham Maslow

These are not binding principles but rather guidelines. As a manager, you have to understand that needs are complex and change between environments. Building simple mental models like the one above are essential to creating a strong and positive workplace culture and Improving Employee Motivation.

Ok, how do I practically improve Employee Motivation?

We've tackled the definition of Employee Engagement, why it's important and a simple mental model of how to approach the underlying needs that drive it. Practically improving things means first measuring where they are right now. Here are a few methods you can use to do so.

Trust your gut

In a smaller business where you're the founder, CEO or you've simply been with the business for a long time, you can use this method. This is only viable in small, single office businesses with less than 25 staff. It also requires large amounts of trust between you and the rest of the team. Typically, this means you'll already have a good understanding of what your staff's needs are. All that is required is action on your part.

Conversations with staff

As organisations get larger, the distance between managers and staff often become wider. This means you need to make a conscious effort to discuss your team's underlying needs with them either formally or informally.

360 Reviews

If conducted correctly, 360 reviews of managers will often yield excellent insights into which needs of staff are not being met. For instance, a response about a delayed increase letter hints at a survival/security level need not being met.

Employee Engagement Online Tools

There are many tools online which can assist in gathering and collating all the data you need for further action. We're very proud of the one we've built which is free for less than 50 users and can be accessed here. Alternatively, you can use Google Forms which is totally free. We've written an article on how to run an engagement survey using google forms which you should definitely check out.

Take Action!

Organisations and their people are so unique that the required response to staff needs is incredibly varied. Only you are best positioned to answer the question of how and when to address your needs. Luckily, you're not the only one! A quick google will bring up many solutions to problems similar to yours. We intend to write articles to tackle the most common issues undermining Employee Motivation with best practice solutions so stay tuned for more info!

I always like to hear examples of how this is working for our readers so email us at with your stories or feedback on this topic, I'd love to hear them!

JP Olivier
Chartered Accountant, self-taught coder, entrepreneur, investor. Co-Founder of and CFO at