This is part three of a series of three-posts about employee motivation designed to explore aspects of higher-order motivation for business managers. 

Professors talk about how to motivate students.

Parents wonder how to motivate teenagers.

Dog owners ponder how to motivate their dogs to not jump on guests.

Ok, maybe that last one is just me, especially lately. We were “blessed” with a third generation Labradoodle service dog who we named, “Sierra.” Sierra is the happiest mammal with fur. She walks (ok, bounds) into the room and you can’t help but smile as you are wiping up her happy pee between your feet. We are training her to accompany my husband in public as a service dog. She is motivated to please based on love, not necessarily treats. I’ve owned a few dogs and that last sentence was weird. However, it makes me think about motivation differently.

 When I teach motivation to my business students, I mainly teach theory. I’ve even written on a few here and here. Motivation talk is usually tied to a discussion about why people leave jobs. Recently, in a Society for Human Resource Management lunch, a local Human Resource Management executive made a profound statement, “People don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses.”

Oh, how true that is.

But, people also leave for many other reasons. In general, people leave their jobs because they don’t like their boss, don’t see opportunities for promotion or growth, or are offered a better gig (and often higher pay); these reasons have held steady for years.¹ More specifically, in the world of non-profit, if employees feel their job is disconnected from their calling, they leave–especially in nursing. Millennials are finding growth opportunities important in their careers and do not hesitate to move on².  This begs the question, how can people be motivated to stay in their job, at their current employer?

Short answer: They can’t.

I don’t believe you can motivate anyone to do anything because motivation is, at its heart, voluntary. Let’s take the dog, for example. She is motivated by love. She wants to please to receive affection. This is clearly her love language and no liver treat can compare to a long snuggle on my lap. But I cannot make her do anything she is not internally motivated to do. My other dog turns her nose up at treats and affection if she does not want to behave. No amount of treat taunting is going to make her lie down or sit if she is not motivated to do so herself.

It’s the same for humans, but even more so. We are sentient beings, blessed with the ability to make decisions for ourselves out of free will. Unless you physically force me to do something, which is unwise and probably illegal, you must rely on my cooperation to get something done. My voluntary cooperation is necessary for any task to be completed.

There is plenty of research about using merit pay to increase student test scores, bonuses to entice sales people to meet quotas and even throwing candy at students to increase class participation. BUT, at the heart of all of these situations lies the aspect of voluntary participation.

Managers, supervisors, parents, business owners and even dog walkers need to focus on encouraging voluntary participation among their charges. Not providing incentives or dangling carrots, but truly getting to the heart of why people want to be involved. People will be motivated within your organization if they feel wanted, seen, valuable and loved.  Are you communicating their worth to the organization, department, team? Are you regularly recognizing their talent, contributions and sacrifices? When they speak or voice concern, are you actively listening (hear, confirm, repeat back, etc) and then acting upon it? Can you honestly say that as a manager or owner that your employees take up a little part of your heart? I know this is mushy love talk, but honestly people work hard for people who love and cherish them. How are you giving back to them what they put into you?

All of these questions related to esteem and belonging needs. Meet those and you’ll see an increase in voluntary motivation.

If I stop petting my dog when she does something well, she will stop being motivated by my affection. It’s the same for people. Stop recognizing their sacrifices and accomplishments, providing them with gentle correction, or enthusiastically supporting their need for growth and you’ll start to see them detach and eventually separate from your organization.


²STARK, PETER B. KELLY, MARY C.  TD: Talent Development. Sep2016, Vol. 70 Issue 9, p76-77. 2p.