What Really Motivates Employees? Hint: It’s Neither Carrot Nor Stick

Once you get the right people on the bus, as taught to us by Jim Collins and his bestseller Good to Great, a leader’s job is to keep them there by figuring out the elixir of intrinsic motivation.

Despite overwhelming evidence that traditional methods are not effective, and this includes a carrot (reward) and stick (reprimand) approach, an incredible number of companies still waste time and energy on such methods.

According to Paul Marciano, author of Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of Respect, forty years of research prove that not only do the traditional reward and recognition programs not work. They actually decrease overall morale.

As a company leader, take the time to get to know what’s important to each employee and mentor your management team to do that for each direct report

In the US workforce, 70% of employees are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at work, according to the pollster Gallup, so management teams should be highly motivated to find ways to motivate their employees.

Here are a few things to keep in mind.

It’s not all about pay, but it is about fair pay

If you don’t have a fair pay structure in place, you can kiss any aspirations of motivation good-bye. While increasing pay doesn’t necessarily equate to highly motivated employees, if the basics aren’t in place—fair pay and working conditions and job security—employees won’t be motivated no matter what you do.

Discover what motivates each individual

One size does not fit all when it comes to workplace motivation. As a company leader, take the time to get to know what’s important to each employee and mentor your management team to do that for each direct report.

For one employee, getting to leave early for a job well done is a motivator. For another, it may simply be a handshake with a genuine, “Thank you! Your contribution was essential to our success.”


Employees have a very real need to be recognized for their contributions. This doesn’t mean they want programs for an “Employee of the Month,” but they do want to know that their work is seen and appreciated by their manager, supervisor or company owner.

A quick chat at an employee’s desk to show gratitude and to recognize their specific contributions leads to continued motivation. It’s the personal time and attention from a manager that is the true motivator.


Motivated employees are those that are empowered in their tasks, jobs and to make a difference in the company.

Organizations with strict formal processes strangle the motivation of those who wish to make an impact. They give up without even trying because the regulations are set.

Organizations also empower employees when they set them up for success with proper training and mentorship to help them achieve their next goal.

A larger purpose in the work

Particularly important to the millennials who we work with, but motivating to all regardless of age, is the knowledge that our work has a larger purpose.

People with a purpose are more resilient and focused, so it’s important for companies to be sure their employees understand how the work they do improves people’s lives.

Collaborative working relationships

Employees who feel part of a team and who get to build collaborative working relationships with others in the company are also highly motivated. This sense of belonging to a tribe where you depend on others and they depend on you keeps the motivation level high.

If you as a leader aren’t motivated yourself, it’s pretty impossible to have motivated team members


Trust is a foundational component to any relationship and one that is essential for employees to be motivated. When an employee feels that they aren’t trusted to do the job they are getting paid to do because they continue to be micro-managed, it squelches any motivation they have.

Those that are trusted to do their jobs are much more motivated.

Supportive feedback

Motivation also increases when employees get supportive feedback. Most employees want to get better and progress in their careers. When a supervisor shows interest and shares ideas on how to improve, they get highly motivated.

A path to advance

It’s important for employees to see a way to advance within a company to continue to stay motivated. If they view their job as a pit stop on the road to another opportunity elsewhere, their motivation will deflate for the job they’re currently doing.

A culture of self-care

While there are countless companies who offer gym memberships and lunchtime yoga and profess to support work/life balance, it’s incongruent with impossible expectations and demanding timelines that are consistently required.

Companies that truly have the personal health and well-being of their employees as top of mind are the companies that motivated employees gravitate to.


Employees are motivated by the quest to be the best versions of themselves. They don’t want to be complacent, but want to continually grow and face new challenges. Employers who provide this for their employees help to motivate them.

Motivated leadership

If leadership isn’t motivated, it’s pretty impossible to have motivated employees. If your organization is suffering from a motivation problem, be sure that your company and leadership are sufficiently motivating to inspire their employees.

If not, it’s time to reignite the leadership’s passion.

About the Author

Bernard Marr is a business author, keynote speaker, consultant in big data, analytics and enterprise performance, and the founder and CEO of the Advanced Performance Institute. This article was first published on LinkedIn’s blog was re-edited for clarity and conciseness.

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