As a manager, you’re tasked with this major responsibility: Making sure that your team achieves its goals. And in order to do that? You need motivated employees.

If you’re lucky, it might feel like your team is self-driven and inherently eager to get the job done. They don’t need your nudges or encouragement—they do what they’re supposed to do. 

What if your team isn’t quite so self-motivated? Well, it’s your job as the leader to figure out how to light a fire under them so that they get to the finish line. 

That leads to this natural next question: What actually motivates employees? 

The answer is as unique as your team members themselves—one person might be fueled by a bonus while another is energized by a hearty pat on the back. Here’s your guide to cracking the code of what actually drives your employees to do their best work.

The basics: Understanding intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

First things first, it’s important to understand the basics. All of the potential motivating factors for your employees will fall into one of these two categories: intrinsic motivation or extrinsic motivation

  • Intrinsic motivation: A person’s motivation comes from within themselves. They’re motivated to complete a task because they find it personally rewarding.
  • Extrinsic motivation: A person’s motivation comes from external sources. They’re motivated to complete a task because there’s the potential for a prize or a punishment. 

One of these types of motivation isn’t inherently better than the other—and in many cases, they can actually work in tandem. For example, your employee might be motivated to spearhead a challenging project because they find it personally interesting, but also because they know it’ll push them closer to the promotion they’ve been chasing. 

4 potential employee motivators (and how to figure out what your employees value) 

Motivation isn’t one-size-fits-all—it varies from employee to employee. But, while the specific drivers can differ, this point remains true for everyone: The foundation needs to be in place first.

One study sought to rank the importance of seven different motivating factors for employees. The one that came out on top wasn’t a big bonus or a pizza party. It was something seemingly obvious and simple: good working conditions.

So, if your work environment leaves a lot to be desired—whether you demand unreasonable hours, are dealing with a toxic culture, or even have unsafe surroundings for employees—no amount of other incentives are going to make up for that shortfall. You need to meet that minimum requirement before you start exploring other carrots to dangle.

If your working conditions are set up to help employees thrive? You’re ready to explore some other motivating factors.

1. Career growth and advancement

Some employees are hungry to develop in their careers and climb the proverbial ladder, and there’s even some neuroscience at play here. In his book, neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp stated that the human brain has seven core instincts:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Panic-grief
  • Maternal care
  • Pleasure/lust
  • Play
  • Seeking 

The one that Panksepp deemed most important? Seeking. He argued that in order for us to feel our most fulfilled, we need to constantly be chasing something more. Even more interesting? The act of pursuing something is actually more rewarding than achieving the goal. 

While some of this does come back to human nature and brain science, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all employees will be energized by the idea of getting to the next step of their careers. 

McClelland’s Human Motivation Theory states that all of us are motivated by three factors—achievement, affiliation, and power—with one of them being a dominant motivator. 

For employees who have achievement as their dominant motivator, growth and advancement can be a powerful tool to keep them moving forward. Rewards like promotions, increased responsibilities, learning and development opportunities, and the chance to take on more challenging projects can help them unlock a new level of motivation. 

Employees who are motivated by career growth and advancement will: 

  • Regularly solicit feedback about their performance
  • Openly discuss their career goals and desires for the future
  • Frequently toss their hat into the ring for new challenges
  • Take advantage of learning and development opportunities

2. Praise and recognition

Nobody wants to feel like they’re toiling away day after day without anybody ever noticing the hard work they’re doing. While all of us crave at least some level of acknowledgement, some employees are more motivated by praise and recognition than others. 

Need proof? 69% of employees admit that they’d work harder if their efforts were better recognized. But, why exactly do compliments and positive affirmations inspire some of us so strongly? It’s another situation when brain science can reveal a lot.

Take this study as an example. During the study, people had their brains scanned by fMRI machines while they received one of the following: praise or money. The research found that the reward center of people’s brains lit up almost identically in response to both stimuli. 

It’s proof that something as seemingly simple as calling out a job well done could be enough to push your employees to keep striving for more. 

Employees who are motivated by praise and recognition will: 

  • Proudly share their contributions and what they’re actively working on
  • Offer compliments of their own to their colleagues and managers

3. Money and financial incentives

Remember earlier when we talked about making sure the basics are in place first? After all, you need to have a cake before you can frost it. Money is one area that straddles the line between a basic expectation and an added motivator. 

All of us need money to live and we expect to be paid for the work that we do. And, the same study mentioned earlier found that “good wages” were the third most important motivating factor for employees, ranked behind only good working conditions and interesting work.

Employees need to feel that they’re compensated fairly. But, once that box is checked, then bonuses and other additional financial incentives can be strong motivators. It’s a concept rooted in the Incentive Theory of Motivation which, as the name implies, states that reinforcement and incentives can motivate our behavior. 

Studies back this up. One survey found that 74% of respondents said that their organization’s annual incentive plan was “moderate to effective” in achieving its objective. 

But even so, some experts argue that money isn’t always the best motivator to lean on. Research done by psychologist Edward Deci in the 1970s found that motivation derived from cash prizes was fleeting (participants were less likely to continue working on puzzles after they received a payment) and that that type of external reward could actually reduce people’s intrinsic motivation. 

Debate aside, financial incentives are still popular—especially in certain career fields like sales, as just one example. So, this type of motivator is worth exploring if you think it would resonate with some of your employees. 

Employees who are motivated by money and financial incentives will: 

  • Ask for raises when they feel they’re deserved
  • Openly discuss career advancement opportunities and how those relate to compensation

4. Purpose and meaning

Employees don’t want to feel like a cog in a wheel—they want to know that the work they do has an impact on their organization or even the world. Why do their tasks matter? How does their work connect to the larger picture? What difference is your company making as a whole? 

Those are questions that many of your team members likely want answers to. In fact, nine out of 10 people say they’d be willing to make less money if it meant they could do more meaningful work. 

Other studies confirm that a sense of purpose does positively impact our intrinsic motivation and our level of engagement with our work. And, a separate Deloitte study found that organizations that don’t emphasize and act with a higher sense of purpose have a pretty dismal average employee engagement score (only 23%). 

When it comes to motivating your employees, you might not need a pile of cash or a promise of career advancement—they might just need to know why their work and their contributions are important. 

Employees who are motivated by purpose and meaning will: 

  • Ask clarifying questions to understand how their work connects to the whole
  • Frequently want to work cross-functionally to zoom out and understand the bigger picture
  • Seek to understand their company’s mission, vision, and values

Help your team do their best work

That’s not an exhaustive list of potential motivators. Some team members might respond more positively to things like prestige (such as a fancy new job title) or to increased autonomy and flexibility. 

If you’re still struggling to figure out what specific things actually engage and inspire your employees, here’s your foolproof tip: ask them. 

Yep, it’s really that simple. Having candid conversations about what motivators are most meaningful to them will help you zero in on what you need to do to support them in being their best selves at work—and ultimately lead a highly-motivated team you’re proud of.

Do you know what motivates each of your employees? It’s probably 1 of these 4 things