Science Says This Motivates More Than Money or Happiness

Scientists tell us that there is enough nuclear energy in a few buckets of seawater to power the entire world for a day—if it could be unleashed.

Likewise, there’s enough talent, intelligence, capability, and creativity in each of the people in your organization to astound you—if it could be unleashed. Just take a moment to imagine if you and your organization could tap into this power. What could you achieve?

In the Industrial Age, money was the key motivator. Now, financial incentives fall short of engaging people: Salary is a “hygiene factor”—it’s expected. So what does motivate them?

A monumental Towers-Perrin study shows that knowing their contribution is valued means far more to workers than their salary does. No other motivational factor—money, opportunity, trust, or communication—counts as much as “appreciation.” To know that your contribution is meaningful matters more than anything else.

Knowing their contribution is valued means far more to workers than their salary does.

“The least of things with meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it,” said Carl Jung. Almost every worker feels this way, as scholars recently found when surveying people across generations. It doesn’t much matter how old we are or the kind of work we do: “We all want the same basic things out of work,” concludes Wharton Professor Adam Grant. “Whether we’re Boomers, Gen Xers, or Millennials, we’re searching for interesting, meaningful jobs that challenge and stretch us.”

Meaning is the key to engaging people. It’s more important than money. It’s even more important than happiness. In her research, psychologist Dr. Barbara Fredrickson found that “even at the molecular level, our physical and psychological well-being is more dependent on meaning than on happiness.” Too much “feel-good living” seems to increase inflammation, higher stress levels, and a weaker immune system, whereas “meaningful living” is associated with better immune responses and capacity to handle adversity. Meaning is good for you. It’s also good for the organization you work for—the more people find their work meaningless, the worse it is for the business.

Some will say, “It’s my job to pay them. It’s their job to find meaning in what they do.” They have the old organizational mindset described by Daniel Pink: “Humans by their nature seek purpose—to make a contribution and to be part of a cause greater and more enduring than themselves. But traditional businesses have long considered purpose ornamental—a perfectly nice accessory, so long as it didn’t get in the way of the important things.”

Let’s face it; nobody wants to be buried under a load of meaningless or just busy work pushing through to the voluminous number of deadlines to hit. If the work isn’t engaging people, you need to back up and think seriously about how you expect your people to execute on their best efforts. Your peoples’ greatest assets are their brains, no longer just the hands and backs that were required in the past. As Peter Drucker said, “The most important, and indeed the truly unique, contribution of management in the twentieth century was the fifty-fold increase in the productivity of the manual worker. “The most important contribution management needs to make in the twenty-first century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and the knowledge worker…”

Here are a Few Questions to Get You Started

  • How clear are the people in your organization about the organization’s purpose and direction?
  • Do people understand how their daily work connects to those goals?
  • Have people in your organization crafted their own contribution statements that explain specifically how each person will contribute in unique and meaningful ways?

If you are unable to answer each question clearly and in the affirmative, might I suggest you have some work to do?

Perhaps the best place to start is with yourself and the clarity you have about the organization and your role. After all, meaningful change comes from the inside-out.


Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash