We cannot motivate employees; we can only direct already existing motivation

What is motivation?

Let us remind ourselves briefly that there are numerous definitions defining the employees’ motivation, but most of them have in comment the fact that it is some kind of “driving force” which helps us achieve more quality solutions and enjoy work more, while achieving even better results consequently.

EXISTENCE FIRST, DEVELOPMENT SECOND                                                                                                        

Men has always had the need to secure his existence, or to have the conditions to provide a roof over his head, to be physically and psychologically safe.

This implies that properly employed motivation still means that certain pre-requirements are met, and this is where the very famous Maslow’s theory of needs comes into play, which states that we first need to fulfill existential needs in order to even think about fulfilling higher needs. When we are certain that we have the basic conditions, such as salary, job security, safe working environment, psychologically safe team, sense of belonging and respect, they become “implicit” and are no longer the subject of our pondering, thus we switch our focus to development opportunities at work, and consequentially in our company. Analogy in everyday life: If we have a well-built and stable foundation of the house we live in, do we think about it every day or do we think about further construction of our living space? I would say it is the latter.

Therefore, the first task of the management is to make existential needs implicit as much as possible. Of course, it cannot be ideal, and we should not strive for it, but continuously working on it is already enough.


About two years ago, and for the purposes of the project of branding the company Infostud Group as an employer, we created focus groups with employees in the IT sector about what drives them to perform their work best; there were several reasons, but here are some essential ones:

  • Opportunity to learn through work and through external channels
  • Choose technologies and ways in which they will work on projects
  • Good team that provides professional and friendly support

Daniel H. Pink mentions these very reasons in his book “Drive”, but there is also a slightly older theory of self-determined motivation conceived by two psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Dissy.

I believe this is some kind of a “recipe” (if there even is a recipe for working with people) that can help us employ the motivation of our employees.

The first and the most crucial thing is work autonomy, and to give the employee the control over what needs to be done and how it needs to be done as much as possible. Of course, the most important task of a manager is to direct the work of a sector towards achieving goals in accordance with the strategy, and this should remain so for now, but it is also recommended to include the members of the team in some way. If they are included in making decisions about sector’s work plans or their positions, it is more likely that they will feel like themselves, and then a “fuel” is created for intrinsic motivation that helps achieve the best results. Here we are actually encouraging some kind of internal entrepreneurship in an individual’s work and responsibility towards the company.

In a system like this, an employee also has the opportunity to harmonize his personal values with the goals of his position or sector, which is exceptionally important for encouraging intrinsic motivation.

In this way, we arrive to the concept which is advocated by both theories, and that is “work is like play”. If we have higher autonomy, we have the opportunity to conceive work so that it is in accordance with our strengths and preferences, which may result in increased interest in tasks and increased motivation for work. Edward and Richard say this explicitly in the form of “the need to play at work”, whereas Daniel in one part of his book describes Sawyer’s effect of work, when he turned the simple painting of a fence into play (more about this in his book).

The era of knowledge, which we are largely a part of, has placed a special emphasis on knowledge and learning, and on the development of employees. It is men’s nature to continually develop, and not only both theories, but also our programmers point it out as an extremely important need – the need for competence.

The need for competence doesn’t come on its own. Namely, according to the self-determining theory, competence gives us certain type of control over our own lives and work. It is logical that if we know more and have more sophisticated skills, it is more likely that we will build our lives the way we want them to be. Put this way, the need to be competent for work is a man’s natural need that waits to be fulfilled.

If we are building a business in which we can learn and develop ourselves, we are one step closer to higher motivation

And finally – Why do I do what I do, or purpose. Purpose somehow represent the basis and foundation for the two previously mentioned pillars of motivation, and a component which shows us that people actually have the need to integrate their work and influence on the system into their self-concept. It is no longer enough, although it is extremely important, to know our job description and desired results, but rather to impact we have on the system by what we do and how much it fits into our life mission. 

To employ the motivation of employees is an engineer’s job because it requires careful creation of micro and macro employee environments. We should start with culture and ask ourselves how much it helps us in this endeavor, and what we should change in order to come closer to the macro environment that encourages autonomy, competence and purpose. And once we do this homework, what follows is to be primarily open to hear our team members out about what drives them in work and what would motivate them additionally. Only then comes the step of engineering primarily their roles and work, so that they are better suited to the business purpose and requirements of team members.  And then this becomes managerial magic. 

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