4 Psychologically-Backed Ways to Motivate Employees

There’s no shortage of advice roundups of different ways to motivate employees. The problem isn’t the quantity of information — it’s the quality. Lots of articles can advise you on how to motivate people. But psychology can tell you which tactics the human brain actually responds to.

While advice from other managers can be helpful, what works in one environment might not work in another. So instead of focusing on hyperspecific (and perhaps irrelevant) situations, we turned to psychological and behavioral studies. We’ve put together four ways to motivate employees, based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Locke’s goal-setting theory, Herzberg’s two-factor theory of motivation, the Hawthorne effect, and the incentive theory of motivation.

So if you’re looking for ways to build a motivated, more engaged workforce, here’s how to do it.

1. Use Multiple Types of Recognition

Frequent recognition in the workplace is linked tohigher levels of gratitude and lower stress levels. And giving a shout-out to your team members for a job well done does more than boost their mood. According to the incentive theory of motivation, incentives and the desire for reinforcement motivate people to work toward those rewards.

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Although not everyone will respond to different styles of recognition and types of incentives in the same way, you can start with the top motivators. According to one study, the most popular recognition vehicles are thanks from peers and managers, public recognition from senior leadership, gifts/merchandise, trophies and symbolic rewards, and cash.

If you’re testing out new ways to motivate employees, start with the free stuff. Foster a sense of community, and encourage team members to acknowledge great work. Use a public Slack channel, or dedicate time during team meetings to share praise. Here at Uptick, we give each other props in our #shoutouts Slack channel throughout the week. Whoever gets the most shoutouts in a given week is recognized in our weekly team meeting and receives a trophy. Back in the days of in-office work, the trophy was passed from person to person. Now that we’re working remotely, the reigning trophy holder gets a special Zoom background.

Public acknowledgment also fosters a greater sense of belonging. When your team members feel like a part of a team that appreciates them, it fulfills a psychological need on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, further fueling their desire to do their best work. According to the motivational theory, needs that are further down the hierarchy must be met before people can achieve their full potential.

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Caption: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Image Source

Praise is cool, but if you have the means to, make sure you put your money where your mouth is. Pats on the back will never be as inspiring as a cash bonus or a gift card to a local restaurant. Monetary rewards don’t have to be your go-to recognition vehicle, but they should be in the mix.

Keep in mind that not all incentives have to be expensive. For example, a custom pin marking an accomplishment, such as 100 closed deals or 10 years of service at the company, can motivate people. Think of it like a gold-star sticker, but snazzier and longer-lasting.

2. Encourage Healthy Competition

Studies show that competition increases psychological activation and primes the mind for increased effort — which is a fancy way of saying people really love winning.

Learn the difference between healthy and toxic competition. Are you looking for ways to motivate employees to do their best work (healthy), or are you pitting your team against each other (toxic)? Keep competition friendly and motivational by focusing on positive outcomes versus punishments.

Let’s say you want to set a goal for bringing in new business. If you say, “The team that brings in the most new customers this month gets an extra paid day off,” you are focusing on the positive outcome. But if you say, “The team that doesn’t bring in the highest number of customers this month will miss out on an extra day off,” the focus is on a punishment for failing.

Another way to encourage healthy competition is to cross department lines. Instead of making sales compete with customer service, why not create teams that work cross-functionally? You could run the same competition but create teams that pair sales agents with customer service representatives. That way, you’re building stronger relationships among your team instead of building walls between departments.

3. Prioritize Weekly One-on-Ones

Employees “who check in with their manager at least weekly, as opposed to never, are five times less likely to be disengaged.” And it’s not because people love meetings. Weekly one-on-ones fuel the Hawthorne effect — which means people tend to work harder and make positive changes when they know they are being observed.

The Hawthorne effect was originally seen as a side effect, something that skewed the results of studies because people changed their behavior when they knew they were being watched. But observation doesn’t have to feel like a threat. Don’t use the Hawthorne effect as an excuse to micromanage. Instead, use one-on-ones to show your team members that you see and appreciate their contributions.

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Workers who meet with managers on a weekly basis are also twice as likely to trust their managers. Building trust is one of the best ways to motivate employees to do great work. In fact, studies of brain activity show that trust improves performance. Just remember what one-on-ones are for (and not for). If you’re looking for ways to motivate employees, focus on trust-building and growth, not status updates.

4. Collaborate on Goals and Professional Development

Setting challenging but attainable goals is one of the best ways to motivate employees. And according to studies based on Locke’s goal-setting theory, when an employee discusses their goals with another person (such as a manager), it significantly increases the worker’s chances of achieving them.

Goals also play a crucial role in professional development plans, which can have a major impact on an employee’s drive. Herzberg’s two-factor theory of motivation names career development as an example of a motivational factor for employees. When people have goals closely tied to their professional development, they are motivated to continuously improve their performance.

Work with individual team members to set personalized S.M.A.R.T. goals — specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Studies show that challenging and specific goals lead to higher performance than easier “do your best” goals do, so make sure your team members are working toward goals outside of their comfort zones. Stretch assignments — tasks and projects that stretch just beyond a person’s role — are a great way to challenge your team members.

Looking for More Ways to Motivate Employees? Talk to Your Team.

Psychology can tell us a lot about motivation. But keep in mind that what motivates one person might not drive another in the same way.

As you test out all these ways to motivate employees in your company, be sure to continuously check in on your team members and dig deeper into what truly drives them. Find the recognition style that invigorates each person. Design competitions that make employees proud to be a part of a team. Set person-specific goals that help each individual grow.

Use Uptick to schedule and host weekly one-on-ones, and continuously talk to your team about what drives them to do their best work.