Studies have shown that the obvious answer is not money. This defies the laws of behavioural physics but it is clear that other factors can do a better job at motivating us, such as autonomy in the workplace and an opportunity to progress. In an era where technology does much of the grinding work for us, the default stick and carrot method is flawed; making the carrot bigger or the stick sharper no longer creates adequate long term incentives. So what then really motivates us at work?

Money – a short term effect?
Psychologist Edward Deci explains the possible downside to money as a motivator by comparing it to coffee. He explains that if money alone is used to reward activities, it acts as a short term burst of caffeine, a short-term motivational stimulant that wears off, and when it does, long-term motivation deteriorates.

Motivator depends on task
Studies from MIT have shown that money is only a motivator when mechanical skills are needed to carry out simple and regimented tasks. Money fails to act as a stimulant with tasks that require higher cognitive skills, i.e. creative and analytical thinking. Once salary is not an issue, other motivational factors are absolutely essential.

MIT conducted a study consisting of three participants; the first group put their name on their work and their manager acknowledged their efforts. The second group were told not to put their names and all their work was collected in one pile. When the third group handed in their work, their manager shredded it. The findings showed that the third group consequently demanded twice as much pay as the participants in the first group. Given that participants from group two also received little individual recognition, they too were only motivated to work if they were paid nearly double. The employees who wanted the most remuneration were those who felt that their work was least appreciated. So evidently, receiving appreciation at work motivates us to work whilst keeping our salary expectations lower.

One clear motivator seems to be autonomy in the workplace. Companies such as Yahoo have found that allowing employees 24 hours a week to work on anything they want, however and with whomever resulted in them working exceptionally harder within this time. Employees came up with innovative solutions and creations that would not have been possible under management direction. Studies from US Universities also conclude that autonomy is key in motivating employees because it allows for intrinsic motivation, employees feel more engaged because their tasks are self-directed. Autonomy not only motivates the individuals in a company, it has also led to companies expanding four times faster than the traditionally managed company.

Studies from Harvard would argue that progress motivates employees above all other factors. In their study of 12,000 participants, they found that progress on a working day, however small, gives employees the positive emotions that result in motivation. To some extent, this correlates with the abovementioned factors; if employees are given the opportunity to progress, develop new skills, knowledge and experiences, this then results in work that can be more appreciated, even if just by the individual. Progress is measured by meeting goals, and it is at the autonomy of the individual to set the pace that these goals will be met and how big their goals are.

Research into this area infers that although money is an excellent stimulant in the work place, its true motivational value declines when the cognitive skill for a job increases. In essence, it appears that factors that heighten our feeling of self-worth are what truly motivate us. Whether it be the appreciation of our work, our ability to work freely, or the rewards that come with progression. So what motivates us? For some it may be money, for others, sometimes money cannot quite value up to our individual abilities and attributes.