Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

History is filled with countless stories of great LEADERS from the areas of business, sports, and the military.  Commonly held threads between great leaders from these areas are threefold:

  1. Their ability to LEAD and articulate a vision.
  2. Their ability to develop a culture which INSPIRES people to take actions and make decisions in the best interest of their organizations.
  3. Their ability to MOTIVATE people in the accomplishment of jointly held mission, goals, and objectives.

This article focuses upon ideas and concepts behind these three common threads which will assist today’s business leaders in understanding the “WHAT”, “WHY”, and “HOW” of employee motivation.

By providing insight into key aspects of motivation, this article will present opportunities for leaders to evaluate concepts, review their options, formulate ideas, and then implement appropriate actions.  In addition, through connecting the dots between company culture, inspiration, and employee motivation, it will allow leaders to view the bigger picture.  The comprehension gained, when applied to their specific situation, will improve their ability to LEAD, equipped with a better grasp of the topic.  An understanding of employee motivation is a critical component of the whole spectrum of information leaders need in guiding their companies to successful outcomes.

WHAT is motivation?

Motivation is the summation of the internal “reasons” behind why people, and therefore employees, take actions, make decisions, have desires, express needs, set priorities, and exhibit behaviors.

WHAT creates motivations?

Motivations are “created” within people, and thus employees, by intrinsic factors, extrinsic influences, and the individual’s historic viewpoint based upon: their environment, situation, feelings, beliefs, and key life events.  For the purposes of this discussion we are going to focus in on: intrinsic factors, extrinsic factors and influences, and their interrelationships as they pertain to leadership and the concepts behind the motivation of employees.  In addition, leaders also need to be aware of the five listed historic viewpoint items.  These items will have an impact upon employee motivation.  However, they are beyond the scope of this article, other than to note them as underlying concepts which have direct relationships with both intrinsically held factors and extrinsic motivational influences.

HOW do actions taken by leadership in the workplace interrelate to employee motivation?

To understand “WHAT” kinds of actions in the workplace should be taken by leaders, to influence employee motivation, involves first a definition for three distinctly different positive motivational concepts:

  1. Internally held “intrinsic” or personal motivational factors which direct and determine the actions, reactions, and approach people will take in life and as an employee. These factors, and their significance to people over time, may shift and change in priority for many different reasons.  These personal motivational factors may be: changed, adjusted, re-prioritized, and/or added to both by internal and external forces.
  2. External or “extrinsic” factors and influences upon people which shape, direct, and determine the actions, reactions, and approach an individual will take in life and as an employee. These extrinsic motivational factors and influences may: change, adjust, re-prioritize, and/or add to internally held intrinsic factors.
  3. Words, actions, and rewards used by leadership and management to INSPIRE, direct, align, and LEAD, i.e., externally motivate employees to facilitate higher levels of accomplishment, execution, and results in the workplace.

It is important for leadership to differentiate between these three positive motivational concepts.  They are explicitly interrelated.  They are stand-alone components, needing to be understood as individual concepts, as well as their interrelationships.

Leadership and management have two distinctly different approaches involved in understanding, the “HOW”, of externally motivating employees:

  1. They can establish “external” motivational factors such as: salary levels, working conditions, benefits, leave policies, and training opportunities which will externally modify how employees view their jobs and thus how they will perform.
  2. They can also take external motivational and inspirational actions which will have the potential to facilitate, re-align, and influence employee “internally” held motivational factors in the accomplishment of company mission, goals, and objectives.

The actions, words, and direction taken by leadership and management to externally motivate employees, via either of these two approaches, will be “processed and influenced” by the internal motivations currently harbored by said employees.

“WHY” leadership would wish to externally motivate employees, on a very basic level, is twofold:

  1. To motivate employees to execute and produce results in making the company competitive.
  2. To meld and align employee internally held motivational factors with the mission, goals, and objectives required to make the company successful over time.

A key concept for leaders to understand, and embrace, is their role in positively modifying internally held employee motivational factors.  This modification may include: adding factors, reprioritizing factors, realigning factors, and changing how employees react to factors.

Here are some underlying concepts in understanding motivation:

  • The motivational factors driving each employee will be different.
  • Internal priorities of employee motivational factors will be set differently by each employee.
  • Individual motivational factors, and their priorities, may evolve, change, or adjust over time and/or with changes in circumstances.
  • The role, value, or emphasis of an internally held motivational factor can be shifted.
  • Individual reactions of each employee to motivational actions taken by leadership and management may vary greatly.
  • No single motivational action taken will be equally effective across all employees, or divisions of a company, in attempting to increase the productivity of the company.

WHAT are the most effective ways for leaders to influence employee motivational factors?

  1. Identify and hire employees who have the interest, ability, and willingness to modify their motivational factors to help the company become more successful.
  2. Learn, understand, execute, and articulate ways to positively shift “commonly held” employee motivational factors and their priority into an alignment which will assist in meeting your company’s mutually held mission, goals, and objectives.

Note: Actions taken by leadership and management may have both positive and negative impacts upon employees.  If you do not understand what motivates people, how to align employee motivational factors with company priorities, and how to take actions which will produce positive results in the workplace, your journey may encounter a bumpy road.

WHAT is the difference between inspiration and motivation?

“Inspiration” provided by leaders is a form of “motivation”.  You, as a leader, can motivate employees to accomplish work with, or WITHOUT, inspiring them to go the extra mile for themselves and the company in the process.  For example, drill sergeants in the military routinely motivate people every day to run 15 miles in full gear, do 200 push-ups, or crawl through mud on their belly.  Only a leader who has inspired their troops will see people willingly rise-up in the face of certain death and take actions to save the life of another soldier!

Inspiration and motivation are inherently interconnected.  You, as a leader, can motivate employees to do their job by offering such items as: increases in pay, commissions, bonuses, job security, and better benefits.  However, you must inspire employees if you want them to successfully: step-up, go the extra mile, dig deeper, burn the mid-night oil, or come up with ground breaking innovations.

People are instinctively motivated to seek basic needs such as food, water, and shelter.  Therefore, they seek jobs, which yield incomes, to be able to provide these items for themselves and their families.  Many people are also intrinsically motivated to search for society-based value enrichments in their lives and their careers.  As examples, some people become doctors to help others in reducing pain and suffering.  Some people become teachers to give back to society in repayment for what they have learned in school by dedicating themselves to teaching the next generation.

Great leaders find it easy to inspire motivated people to go beyond what is expected or required.  In contrast, it is next to impossible to even obtain basic levels of work from individuals who are not internally motivated in at least some fashion.

WHAT defines the underlying factors influencing the internal motivation of employees?

  • The employee’s environment, situation, feelings, beliefs, and key life events.
  • Motivational factors may be subconscious or conscious in origin.
  • They may be perceived by the individual or thought-out and considered.
  • They may be instinctive or defined.
  • They may have a primary influence or a secondary influence.
  • They may be apparent or totally obscure.
  • They may be unilateral or multidimensional in nature.
  • They may be extremely important in how they are weighted or very subtle.

Thus, there is no easy way to fully measure, evaluate, perceive, or understand the mechanisms which internally motivates an employee, nor their potential reactions to external influences.

HOW does internal motivation impact an employee’s actions and performance in the workplace?

It will define:

  • How the employee feels about their job.
  • How satisfied the employee is in their position within the company.
  • How the employee views: the company; their potential future with the company; actions taken by leadership and management; company mission, goals, and objectives; and their assigned work.
  • How the employee interacts with others.
  • How they approach their job and how they do their job.
  • How dedicated they are to their job and to the company.
  • How the employee reacts to external motivation.
  • Whether the employee is willing to step up and go the extra mile for the company.
  • The mindset of an employee.

WHY is it important to understand what motivates people in general?

  • It provides leaders with the opportunity to bring out the best in their employees.
  • It will directly impact the ability to inspire employees in taking a company to the next level.
  • It helps to define how good of a match a prospective employee will be in relationship to a specific job, a functional team, or your company.
  • It can be a predictor of how an individual will respond in the workplace to a leader’s attempts to inspire, direct, and motivate them.
  • It can be a predictor of how an individual will perform within the company and their potential growth within the company.
  • It factors into how: they will work with others; they will represent the company to customers, suppliers, or sub-contractors; and if they will be problem solvers or problem creators.
  • It can be a key to: solving problems, finding a competitive edge, seeking innovations, defining new markets or products, or finding needed cost savings.

Ten examples of positive employee internal motivational factors:

  • Seeking intrinsic value.  (A core common thread in your company culture.)
  • Accomplishment of personal goals, objectives, milestones, and/or a vision.
  • Fulfilling a purpose.
  • Service to others or to society.
  • Personal growth and development in their careers.
  • Building self-esteem/self-worth.
  • Mastering a specific skill or level of achievement.
  • Family.
  • Being part of something special.
  • Pride in what they are doing as an individual and what their company is doing.

Ten examples of negative employee internal motivational factors:

  • Greed and/or the pursuit of money as the only goal.
  • Power.
  • Winning, as the only reason for participating.
  • Avoiding work at all costs.
  • Having a negative attitude and approach.
  • Always needing to be right.
  • Being in control (and then micromanaging).
  • Revenge.
  • Thinking they are better than other people.
  • Personal agenda items not left at the door.

HOW do you ascertain if a prospective employee harbors motivational factors which will yield positive results under your leadership?

  • Review the information and wording in their resume and supporting documentation.
  • Use supplemental questions and evaluation testing technics in your hiring process.
  • Ask numerous pointed questions during their interview.
  • Ask the right questions of their references and previous supervisors.
  • Contact their friends and teachers.
  • Contact their current peers at their workplace.
  • Look at their educational and employment history.
  • Review their social media information.

HOW do you ascertain what motivates current employees as individuals and as a group?

  • Review their work accomplishment records.
  • Ask pointed questions.
  • Listen to what they say in general conversations.
  • Listen to how they justify decisions and actions.
  • Observe their interactions both on an individual one-to-one level and between groups.
  • Listen to what their expressed interests are, such as: family, toys, vacations, their jobs, career, objectives, or promotions.
  • Key in on their actions and reactions to workplace issues and concerns.
  • By understanding what normally draws employees to your industry.

WHAT are the key ideas behind developing a culture which will inspire and motivate employees?

  1. To define, articulate, and lead your company in the accomplishment of your mission.
  2. To understand, convey, and engrain the intrinsic values underlying your company mission to society, as core company values.
  3. To develop a commonly held “sense of purpose” in your employees, related to said intrinsic values, reaching across all division of the company.
  4. To develop a passion within your workforce in seeking accomplishment, results, execution, and teamwork, both within, and across, all groups or divisions. This should include: showing consideration, respect, recognition, appreciation, compassion, and be crowned off with a dedication by all employees to provide a “service to your customers”.
  5. To encourage and expect your employees to find a reasonable balance between their work and their personal life.
  6. To set a goal of building a resilient, adaptable, lasting company culture which will be able to transcend change.

HOW do you develop a company culture which will help make your company successful?

As the leader, your role is to articulate the mission, goals, and objectives (MGOs) of your company and then inspire and motivate employees to accomplish them.  To be successful in this role, you must understand how to speak to your employees in a fashion which will connect with motivational factors they hold internally as their own, both as individuals and in groups.

Successfully motivating and inspiring people involves creating a company cultural environment in which employees will want to choose to make the best decisions for BOTH them and the company at the same time.  Specific steps leadership can take to help create this environment include:

  • Showing affirmation and appreciation for work well done.
  • Spending one-on-one time with employees both in discussions, and when possible, working together on tasks.
  • Helping employees accomplish their work by: serving as a listening post for their concerns, providing requested support, encouraging teamwork and accomplishment, and defining a sense of purpose in their jobs.
  • Recognition of an individual’s contribution, done on a personal basis.
  • Recognition for the performance of teams, in larger group settings.
  • Providing recognition which is always tied directly back to the company’s mission, goals, and objectives.
  • Encouraging all employees to recognize important efforts of their team members, peers, or other employees.
  • Encouraging employees to build lasting, successful relationships across all facets of their positions.
  • Fostering an environment where communications and cooperation between company divisions is the norm in meeting company MGOs.
  • Fostering an environment where every employee of the company is a member of the “company” team first and their work or division team second and not the other way around.
  • Being respectful.
  • Coaching and mentoring.
  • Setting clear expectations.
  • Setting and modeling the highest standards.
  • Celebrating successes.
  • Marking the accomplishment of important milestones and contributions to those milestones.
  • Remembering to provide the context for: decisions, changes, direction, new policies, or instructions.
  • Encouraging and supporting the delegation of tasks, duties, roles, and responsibilities which will allow employees to learn and grow in their careers.
  • Showing support for, and encouraging, employee growth and development within all levels or divisions of the company.
  • Expecting all employees to speak up when they have suggestions, questions, or concerns.
  • Encouraging and supporting problem solving at the lowest level of the company possible.
  • Working to correct behavioral or performance issues in a constructive, collaborative manner.
  • Fostering a culture which supports all employees and recognizes the importance of their contributions.
  • Trusting your employees to do their jobs and not micromanaging them, but also holding employees accountable for execution and results.
  • Providing honest and supported feedback, both positive and negative as appropriate – again tied directly back to the company MGOs.
  • Having open and honest communications.
  • Not keeping employees in the dark about significant company issues.
  • Personifying that employees are a critical company resource and employee retention is an important company objective.
  • Taking time to know and honestly care about your employees.

HOW do you use inspiration, along with your company culture, to make your company successful?


  • Always remaining positive, driven by your company mission, and viewing “issues” as “opportunities” to learn and grow, rather than “problems” to be faced.
  • Helping employees stay in touch with the company’s intrinsic contributions to society, especially during difficult times.
  • Challenging them to rise above obsessing over short term minor issues facing the company and instead maintaining their focus on long term key goals and objectives.
  • Rallying them to rise to the occasion: in overcoming set-backs, after a defeat, or missing an opportunity.
  • Asking them to accept changes in the direction of the company required to stay ahead of your competition.
  • Focusing their energy in finding solutions to key problems the company is dealing with.
  • Encouraging them to explore opportunities related to expansion into new products, new product areas, or new territories.
  • Inspiring them to seek innovations, new ideas, and solutions to improve your competitive edge in the market place.

WHAT adjustments in your motivational actions are of value, depending on the division of the company you are dealing with?

Underlying, internally held ideas and concepts, which motivate your managers, professionals, or administrative staff may not be totally in sync with those motivating your factory workers, logistics employees, or your warehouse folks.  Plus, the role and goals of divisions within a company will vary greatly.  Defining, articulating, and accentuating specific ideas and concepts to discuss and emphasis with selective audiences, may help in your overall efforts to successfully motivate employees, company-wide.  You must, however, remain steadfast in the delivery of your over-riding core company message across all venues and audiences.

Note: Given the highly competitive nature of many industries for limited consumer dollars, being able to motivate customer facing employees into seeking and finding ways to provide better customer service, is just one example of how understanding motivational factors may yield a competitive edge in the market for leaders.

“WHAT” is the bottom-line on motivating employees?

Great business leaders:

  • Understand “HOW” to “create a culture” which INSPIRES employees to become a part of the team, make decisions, and take actions in the best interest of both themselves and the company at the same time.
  • Base this understanding upon company related circumstances, mixed in with general knowledge of “motivational factors”, common amongst employees.
  • Through their words, direction, and actions seek to “modify” and “align” employee motivational factors with their company’s direction.
  • Utilize their knowledge, skills, and abilities to articulate the mission and to LEAD the way.

Commonly held, potential employee motivational factors which leaders can use, shape, and align, in taking their company to the next level include:

  • Believing in the company’s intrinsic value.
  • Providing top-tier service and products to customers.
  • Winning for the right reasons.
  • Being at the top for the right reasons.
  • Being part of something special.
  • Having pride in their job and what the company is doing.
  • Being part of a successful company or team.
  • Knowing their contribution to that success is important and appreciated.
  • Knowing deep down inside they have something to prove or achieve and believing they can do it by working together.
  • Being driven by a higher cause, concept, or ideal.

The “WHY”. 

Successful business “Leaders” need three threads: a WINNING company culture, the ability to LEAD, and the ability to MOTIVATE and INSPIRE.

Michael Roney has a Master’s of Science degree from the University of Montana and over thirty-three years of experience in a successful professional career. Nineteen of those years were spent in supervisory and managerial roles. He has been dedicated to studying the role of leadership and management in organizations for over 25 years, in relationship to how work is accomplished and how organizations adapt to change. The single greatest compliment he was given during his career was from an employee who stated he had a “Ph.D. in common sense”. He has worked since the fall of 2013, part-time, as a freelance business writer, providing services to clients from coast to coast. He has completed business related documents covering several areas including: safety management, human resources, driver’s education, agreements, contracts, product descriptions, insurance claim related documents, non-disclosure agreements, business plans, home and business security, resources management, non-profits, child protection, and education.