How to build a motivated workforce

Published on Tuesday, 09 October 2018
Last updated on Monday, 03 February 2020

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Good managers intrinsically understand the benefits of leading a more motivated workforce, which include reduced absenteeism, higher productivity, greater staff retention, improved reputation, increased profit and improved staff morale overall.

The challenge is in trying to understand the spectrum of motivations which lead staff to turn up to work each day. These motivations are likely to be as different as the people on your team and it can be unhelpful to try and apply the same rules to everyone. This is especially important in the early childhood workforce, where the hours are long and staff turnover can be a challenge.

To try and make sense of the puzzle, researchers at Melbourne University conducted a meta-analysis of more than 30,000 employees worldwide to determine how leaders can best foster motivation in the workplace and ensure the psychological well being of team members.

University of Melbourne researchers Dr Gavin R. Slemp and Lara H. Mossman claim that work motivation is varied and on a spectrum from a complete lack of motivation, to highly extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation.

They say that highly extrinsic forms of motivation are contingent on external events, like rewards or approval. Intrinsic motivation, in contrast, is driven by inner experiences, such as enjoyment, satisfaction or growth. It involves participating in an activity simply because it is interesting or enjoyable.

The researchers say intrinsic motivation is the highest quality workplace motivation because it tends to foster greater workplace wellbeing, proactivity, engagement, and performance. It is also more sustainable because when employees are intrinsically motivated, they are self-motivated.

How do leaders foster intrinsically motivated employees?

According to the study they can use particular practices to have a positive influence on employee work motivation, performance and psychological functioning.

These include:

  • providing opportunities for employees to make their own choices and have inputs into decisions
  • encouraging self-initiated behaviours within structured guidance and boundaries
  • showing an interest in the perspective of employees, demonstrating empathic concern
  • encouraging ownership over goals, and interest and value in work tasks by clearly articulating a rationale about why those tasks are important
  • avoiding the use of controls that restrain autonomy, like overtly controlling behaviour such as micro-management, or tangible sanctions or rewards to prompt desired job behaviours

As mentioned above one of the key de-motivators for staff is overtly controlling behaviour as compared with leadership which is supportive of autonomy and empowering employees to take control of their own work life and stepping in to guide them only when necessary.

The researchers claim controlling leadership style is restraining and suffocating, whereas an autonomy supportive style is empowering, treating the employee like a self-directed agent who can think and act for themselves. Leaders may not entirely conform to one style over the other, but the more autonomy supportive a leader can be, the better the outcomes for their employees.

The study drew on data from people who had experienced different degrees of autonomy-supportive leadership and found it supported greater intrinsic motivation, workplace well-being, job satisfaction, committed and loyal employees, higher work engagement and a reduced chance of employees suffering from burnout.

According to the researchers, leadership which is supportive of employee autonomy leads to positive outcomes by helping employees meet three basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness.

The researchers claim that when employees work for an autonomy supportive leader they naturally feel more autonomous. Yet they also tend to behave in ways that support their competence and relatedness needs. For instance, they might seek out new challenges and learning opportunities, or take steps to develop relationships with peers.


Want to lead self motivated employees?
By Dr Gavin R. Slemp and Lara H. Mossman, University of Melbourne

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