Challenge, not money, drives most people

When you think about it, ‘work’ is a very strange thing to be motivated about. It requires a lot of effort, and can diminish our recreational time to about 5% of our waking lives – yet so many of us are driven by career and actually enjoy being consumed by work.

So what is it that motivates us at work?

SmartCompany ran a recent survey to ask readers to choose ONE of the following only, and here are the results:

1. Challenges and achievements (62%)

The idea of creating, contributing and achieving is what more than half of respondents considered the most powerful motivator. The satisfaction and joy that comes with overcoming hurdles and achieving large, tangible results is the strongest motivator in extracting the best performance. The internal scripts that accompany this are:

“I’m going to put in 100% because I really want to see this project succeed”

“I’m not going to stop until I’m happy with the outcome”

“I can see that my contribution is getting serious results for the company”

2. Acknowledgement (15%)

While the ‘challenges and achievements’ answer represents an intrinsic motivator, there is an extrinsic one that comes up often when talking to people who are dissatisfied at work.

Acknowledgement gives people an extra spark, a burst of energy that makes them want to repeat the effort that received the praise in the first place. Acknowledgement is a social motivator, so we look to our peers and managers for this kind of approval. Without an underlying sense of purpose this motivator isn’t nearly as powerful, but in conjunction with it you are much more likely to produce your best work.

3. Money (12%)

When it comes to measures of self-worth, it is interesting to see where money ranks. Many people, privately, define themselves and measure themselves socially by perceived level of income. When it comes to motivating for work, money is definitely a motivator, but not always the most effective one.

Discussions around money as a motivator usually arise when people are quite dissatisfied with their job, or consider a shift to a new one. In light of the top two answers to this survey (Achievement + acknowledgement) this comes in third. Most people who are striving to achieve and are happy at work will accept salaries lower than their skill could potentially demand. But the unsatisfied quotient begins to see their salaries as a scoreboard. The point is that people feel the emotion first (satisfaction/dissatisfaction) and then justify it (I’m not paid enough/I could earn more elsewhere).

4. Trying and learning new things (1%)

The lonely figure of only 1% of people being motivated by trying and learning new things is really interesting. Skill-building is a really satisfying part of life, beyond the boundaries of ‘work’, but only 1% report it as a motivator. It just doesn’t sit at the fore of people’s mind as a joyful, motivating experience. And certainly even if you are motivated by learning – if you can only choose one item – the challenges and the achievements overshadow this item.

5. Friday afternoon (0%)

This was included as a response option due to discussions on motivation and quite a few people suggesting that ‘Friday afternoon’ is the feeling that keeps them moving through the working week. SmartCompany respondents do not rank the upcoming weekend over and above other items.

The important thing to remember about motivation is that it is a feeling, and it is about having the energy and confidence to take on challenges. The various thoughts (self-talk), conversations and other inputs (food, sleep, etc) that fuel these feelings are important to consider when trying to increase our motivation and resilience.

Eve Ash has two books published by Penguin she is offering to SmartCompany readers (assuming stock left) at half price till end of April 2013. Email to request your copies of: Rewrite Your Life! and Rewrite Your Relationships!



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