Research Reveals 3 Keys to Motivating People at Work. How are You Doing?

Since the establishment of the first organization, leaders have always looked to motivate workers. Brute force, fear, intimidation, and other barbaric ‘motivational’ approaches dominated leadership tactics for much of history. Under those conditions, leaders treated people like cogs in a machine, at best, and in the very worst of situations revealed the most vile aspects of humanity. Sadly, in today’s world, too many still suffer under heavy-handed treatment and work in oppressive situations. Thankfully, for most, these horrific conditions are well in the rearview mirror.

As leaders moved from lording over workers to applying more humane motivational tactics, a wide range of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators surfaced. Intrinsic efforts involve tapping into an individual’s desire to perform meaningful work and to be seen as valued and effective. Motivation and fulfillment come from feeling appreciated and recognized. Extrinsic approaches involve salaries, bonuses, benefits, and other compensation-based tools.

No doubt, you have applied, and have also been on the receiving end of, a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic approaches.

Over the couple of decades, a shift has happened…

I’m not trying to oversimplify a complex dynamic – human motivation – but please afford me a degree of latitude for discussion sake.

If you turn back the clock 20, 15, or even 10 years ago, it was not uncommon for a person struggling with a work situation to receive answers based on organizational precedence or individual leader idiosyncrasies more than on anything fair or equitable.

Here are a few examples:

  • A team member is given a ‘bad’ work assignment three times in a row or is carrying more than her fair share of the workload. Her complaint to the boss is met with a curt, “Deal with it. Life isn’t fair.”
  • An employee is passed over for promotion and given no explanation for the decision. He inquires about the process only to be met with a, “Wait another year,” from his supervisor.

These employees would often scurry back to their workspaces and bury their frustrations in their work. Perhaps they updated their resumes and polished their interview skills in hopes of uncovering another opportunity.

Today, their reactions are often quite different.


Well, we live in a time of the rise of organizational justice. Today’s employees rarely sit idly by and wait for “their turn” or passively accept what others “give” them.

In recent years, researchers are pointing to a shift in motivational theory to the concept of organizational justice. This has everything to do with fairness in the workplace and is comprised of three elements:

  1. Distributive justice deals with the fairness of an outcome. Employees are concerned with whether or not they are getting what they deserve.
  2. Procedural justice addresses how fair a process is and how well it is employed. Employees are concerned with whether or not their input is heard and applied. They want to know why and how certain decisions are made.
  3. Interactional justice focuses on treating people with dignity and respect. Employees want to know not only why certain decisions were made, but they are also concerned with how they are talked to and talked about throughout the day.

What’s the point?

As much as it matters to offer a competitive salary and a generous benefits package, an active awards and recognition program, or a range of other employee initiatives, it’s more important now than ever before to be transparent, respectful, and fair.

Let me put it another way. You can pay well; but if you don’t treat people well, they will leave. Or, worse yet, they will quit and stay.

A few questions to consider:

  • Are you fairly treating employees or are some getting preferential treatment? If the latter exists are you ok with that? Would you be concerned if others knew about special treatment?
  • Do you have processes in place that ensure fairness and equity? Are some processes skewed in ways that cause predetermined and unequal outcomes?
  • Do your people feel that they are appreciated, valued, and recognized for and because of their efforts? How do you know?

Oh, and drop phrases like…

  • “Life isn’t fair. Deal with it.”
  • “Wait your turn. I did.”
  • “If you want respect, get a dog.”

…from your vocabulary.

They don’t make you look strong. They make you look guarded, disrespectful, and unjust.


Photo by Tamarcus Brown on Unsplash