In a wide-ranging study of employee motivation, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer asked hundreds of employees to maintain a diary chronicling their peaks and valleys in motivation at work. Amabile and Kramer eventually analyzed 12,000 diary entries in total and what they discovered was totally contrary to Maslow’s hierarchy and conventional managerial wisdom.
In fact, Amabile and Kramer talked with 600 managers about what they thought was the single-most important motivator for employees at work. A shocking 95% of them got the answer wrong. It’s not money, safety, security, or pressure that drives employees at work. It’s not the supposedly foundational needs in Maslow’s hierarchy. The most important motivator for employees at work is what Amabile and Kramer call “the power of small wins“: employees are highly productive and driven to do their best work when they feel as if they’re making progress every day toward a meaningful goal.
Meanwhile, in a recent study by psychologist Susan David of highly engaged employees at work, David asked people what made them so engaged and excited about their work. 96% of the employees didn’t mention pay at all. Instead, what David found dovetailed with Amabile and Kramer’s discovery. In describing their motivations at work, highly engaged employees “highlighted feeling autonomous and empowered, and a sense of belonging on their teams.”
If you think that you need this touchy-feely stuff for only your weakest employees, you’re wrong. Non-hierarchical thinking about employee needs is even more important when it comes to your highest performers.