A Motivated, Energetic, and Productive Employee: Nature or Nurture?

The success of a high performing organization rests on people. Even the most sophisticated technologies or thoroughly planned organizational processes fail if not embraced and supported by the people. Thomas Watson Jr. (IBM President 1951 through 1972) said “I believe the real difference between success and failure in a corporation can be very often traced to the question of how well the organization brings out the great energies and talents of its people (1).

So how do organizations create and sustain an energized and productive workforce? Should the focus be on selecting the best fit employees who are intrinsically motivated to do their best? Or should organizations place their resources in extrinsically motivating the workforce?

Intrinsic motivation is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself, and exists within the individual rather than relying on any external factors or rewards. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, refers to the performance in order to attain an outcome. Extrinsic motivation can be internalized by the individual if the task fits with their values and beliefs, and helps to fulfill their psychological needs.

Extrinsic employee motivation in organizations is moderated by three main variables: employee age, type of job, and situational needs. Younger employees tend to be motivated by career opportunities, autonomy at work, training and development, and recognition. The most effective motivators for middle aged employees are job security, monetary incentives, and recognition. Older workers are most effectively driven by job security, positive work environment, and recognition. As we can see, “recognition” is a common denominator for all age groups.

The role of monetary motivators significantly differs based on a job type. The study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that when a job involves mechanical skills only, monetary incentives is an effective motivator. However, when a job requires cognitive skills, monetary incentives loose an effect. Even further, monetary incentives may have an adverse effect, and decrease employee’s performance (Pink, 2010)(2). The findings of this study are something to ponder upon for the organizations that try to motivate their management with high bonuses…

Situational motivators, such a lagging economy or a tough family situation can also influence to which degree an employee is motivated by monetary incentives versus other organizational factors, such recognition and appreciation.

Organizations can pay attention to both types of employee motivation. From intrinsic motivation perspective, organizations can select the best fit employees whose natural tendencies fit the process and requirements of a specific position. When a job type matches employee’s passions, desires, and temperament, an employee tends to perform better.

From a point of extrinsic motivation, employers can use recognition and appreciation. Some of the most effective appreciation strategies are also very inexpensive or free. For instance writing “thank you” note or a letter to an employee does not take much time, but may work wonders in increasing employee motivation. Other recognition and appreciation strategies can be gift cards, performance certificates, plaques, office breakfasts, or a surprise day off. Celebrating employee’s successes, such as graduation, can be an effective motivational strategy as well. Most importantly, appreciation and recognition has to be honest, and leaders have not only to act, but also believe that people are the most valuable asset.

So, is a motivated, energetic, and productive employee predetermined by nature or is he molded by organizational nurturing practices? The answer is probably “both”. While our personality, experiences, and general attitudes play the role in how much we are motivated to do our best, organizational practices influence our extrinsic motivation, and consequently productivity to a significant degree.

Daniel Pink (2010). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
Thomas J. Watson, Jr. (1963). A business and its beliefs.