The unexpected truth about employee motivation

3 main drivers to keep employees engaged, motivated, and (most importantly) happy. 

The term employee, as defined by Merriam Webster, is “a person who works for another person or for a company for wages or a salary”. Based on this definition alone we can begin to notice why many companies are left puzzled at the realization that their teams are disengaged and performing poorly despite the fact that they are being compensated fairly and even at above average rates. Studies show that although employees are given salaries for performing their jobs, it’s actually not the driving force that motivates them to invest their knowledge, energy, and creativity day in and day out.

Research shows that only 30% of U.S. employees, and 13% worldwide, are engaged with their jobs (with millennials being the least engaged) [1]. We are left wondering, why? Why are employees, sales reps, and even managers not engaged with their jobs? It’s only natural to begin questioning this reality. Luckily, there are answers and studies that lead us away from the worn out and ineffective carrot and stick model and towards the new era of motivation.


The best way to understand motivation is to begin by understanding the nature of humans and how we have evolved in the post industrialization era. In 1969, Management Author Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” in his book, The Age of Discontinuity. Now, more than 40 years later, our entire workforce is engaging in knowledge work, not just manual labor. Businesses exist thanks to the expertise and experience of the people they employ. Employees in today’s workforce qualify as knowledge workers since they engage 21st century tasks such as making strategic decisions, designing products, engaging in sales, and creating marketing plans. The question now is, does motivation differ for knowledge workers than workers whose tasks involve using only mechanical skills?

Daniel Pink, career analyst and author of the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, argues that while carrots and sticks worked successfully in the twentieth century, that’s precisely the wrong way to motivate people for today’s challenges. The secret to motivating and attaining high performing and satisfied teams stems from a deep human need to direct our own lives, to learn, and to create new things on our own. He defines these 3 drives as autonomy, mastery, and purpose.


We are all built with an inner drive to do things on our own terms. This innate desire is also referred to as self-determination and is illustrated when children play and explore all on their own. Workplaces can support this aspect of human motivation by trusting their employees and giving them full control on all aspects of their projects. This means what to work on and when to do it. Giving meaningful feedback and encouragement is also crucial to enable autonomy and results in higher job satisfaction and job performance.


Mastery is the feeling we get when we learn something new and apply our knowledge into a current task and succeed. Humans want to get better at things, even if that means feeling frustrated while in the learning process. If employees feel like they are not getting anywhere they will disengage. Mastery fuels a sense of progress, of growth, and of value. The goal is to achieve a state of flow, as coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, which is “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus in our work”. This means we need to match the person’s skills with the challenge at hand. Simply pay more attention to employees by listening to them without judgment and fostering an environment of open communication.


This might be the most important of the 3 drivers, as people who find purpose in their work are able to unlock the highest levels of motivation. This is where the culture and values of a company have the power to influence and inspire teams to work together for something greater than themselves. Purpose is able to guide people during challenging times and provides an internal blueprint to pursue the highest-level actions, even when no one is watching.

It makes sense that autonomy, mastery, and purpose, as Daniel Pink explains, are the building blocks of motivation in the information age. Knowledge and creativity are the main assets that we as humans bring to the table and the old model is outdated. We are dealing with an entirely new operating system for businesses where motivating employees consists of implementing initiatives and feedback systems that focus on the individual and not assuming a one size fits all model of engagement.

Do you have any unique engagement practices in your workplace that highlight one of the 3 main drivers to motivation? Comment below, we would love to hear from you.