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Humans are driven by their motivations and desires, not only in their personal life, but also in their professional life. It our our job as HR professionals to understand and nurture these.

To understand what motivates people you need to understand what they require to live their life. This article will (1) give a bit of historical context on the motivations of employees, (2) shape an idea of where we stand today, (3) present an idea of how these motivations will change in the future, and (4) why this matters and what you as an employer can do to be prepared for these changes.

Motivation is often a combination of needs and desires, which are hard to separate from one another (the biologic view on what you need to live is narrower than the social view). One psychologic theory which tries to understand human needs and desires is the pyramid theory of Maslow. Maslow describes five stages of needs and desires which address all motivations which a human can have: (1) physiological needs, (2) safety needs, (3) love and belonging, (4) esteem, (5) self-actualization. These needs and desires are connected with what motivates people to work and are partly dependent on how work is set up.

Fundamentals, HR, Recruitment, Recrytering, Building

The historical context: establishment of basic needs and a sense of belonging

The way work is set up has always been directed by the structure of our society. In the 17th century our society transformed from a Feudal to a Capitalistic society. This had huge and long lasting impacts on the way we structure work. In a Feudal society work had the form of serfdom, wherein serfs worked on the land of a lord in exchange for protection and a part of the harvest. In a Capitalistic society this transformed and work changed into employment as we now know it (the exchange of labour for money). Both serfdom as the early stages of employment were mainly addressing physiological needs. Capitalism transformed in the mid-18th century through the industrial revolution and its counter transformation of workers’ rights in the 19th century. By this time employment covered most of the physiological needs and started to cover the safety needs. At the dawn of the 20th century socialism came to rise in most Western countries and labour laws and regulations were instated. Now most physiological and safety needs are covered, and combined these needs are otherwise known as ‘basic needs’.

Beyond basic needs socialism also sparked a sense of solidarity among workers and started to create the need to belong to groups, even beyond the personal life. Meanwhile, in the mid-20th century, the way we perceived employment changed as well. Mass production was developed during the two world wars and within the factories individual skills were replaced by routines. This had two effects, firstly it broke up informal skill-based hierarchies within groups of employees and secondly it lowered the barrier to be a part of those groups, as one did not need as much skills anymore to be respected by his or her fellow employees. A sense of belonging became more important and simultaneously easier to access within workplaces.

Where we are today: establishing and confirming esteem

Towards the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century most employments, or at least here in Sweden, cover our basic needs and our sense of belonging. Currently most employees are at the stage where they require work which gives more value other than just material possessions and a sense of belonging to a group. They are looking for jobs which boosts self-esteem, create a certain sense of achievements and goals, can generate status and recognition, and present a certain independence and freedom. This is summarized in the fourth base of the pyramid called ‘esteem’. Examples of this in practice include: determining responsibilities, setting targets and goals, one-on-one meetings, monthly meetings and other forms of feedback discussions which enhance employee self-esteem and the relationship with the employer.

Where we will go: self-actualization

The last part of Maslow’s pyramid is also the one which is most interesting, perhaps the most important, but above all; the hardest to achieve. Self-actualization is the idea that a human can fulfil their ultimate potential, achieving their self-fulfilment and achieving constant personal growth, in other words: to become the most that one can be. Arguably people are already transforming to this final state as they are looking for companies and roles which allow them to achieve their full potential and self-fulfilment. A determining factor in this process are an individual’s personal values. What somebody values in life will also play a key role in their search for the perfect job. In this sense the right company culture and values will be (or already are) a crucial factor in attracting and hiring the right employees.

This final stage is crucial as it is radically different from the previous 4 stages. In the previous 4 stages whenever one is achieved, motivation actually drops upon achievement. Think about it; when one of those needs are met, it becomes a habit. Over time you will get used to the fact that your basic needs are covered, that you make up a part of a team and that your manager confirms that you are doing your work correctly. These 4 stages are also what people motivates to JOIN a company, it is that which makes employers attractive and makes JOINERS excited to start a new employment (external rewards).

What is different with the fifth stage is that it is internal motivation starts playing a role. Becoming the best one can be is a never ending process. This sounds tiring, but as it aligns with your values in life this is not a struggle but it is an ongoing opportunity (and is also perceived as such). Look at it from this way: if your heart lies in finance, your values align with that which finance represents, and you’ve realized that becoming the ‘best you’ means ‘becoming the best accountant’, then this will be an ongoing process which will motivate you to becoming just that each and every day. This is the crucial difference in the fifth stage and it is one that employers should be fully aware off as it is also the primary reason which turns your JOINERS into actual STAYERS. 

What can you do?

Most employers have the basics covered: the basic needs are required by law and a sense of belonging is often created by working in teams, having meetings and team-building activities. The challenges appear for most employers in stage 4 (establishing and confirming esteem) and stage 5 (self-actualization). To address these an employer has to turn his or her organisation into one which is responsive to personal values and needs.

What does this mean in practice?

  • Identify, translate and vocalize your culture and values

Identification with a company’s culture and values is crucial for employee’s self-actualization. It motivates more to go to a place which aligns with what you are looking for in life than one that does not. So start off with investigating which kind of culture you already have and what kind of values align with that culture. Secondly, translate those into actual sentences and statements which are clear and easy to understand. An old teacher of mine always said: “If you cannot explain it to me in a simple way, then you do not understand it yourself” – which is a motto that culture and values should live by. Finally, you have to vocalize them in your organisation. Be sure to remind your employees what they are and why you have them. It is repetition which makes us remember and adhere to them.

Do you need help identifying, translating and vocalizing your culture and values? Click here.

  • Finding the right people – JOINERS

After understanding what you stand for, you need to find and hire people who can identify not only with the job’s requirements, but also with your culture and values. This is especially crucial if you want to tap into the internal motivation of self-actualization: becoming the best you can be. This will have a huge impact on the sustainability of your relationship and the productivity of your employees.

Do you need help finding the right people? Click here.

  • Individual growth plans – STAYERS

Everybody wants to grow, become better tomorrow than they were yesterday, but most people need guidance and help into coordinating this path of growth. Every path starts at a beginning and so does growth. So start off with an assessment of what your employee wants in life, where his or her personal values and aspirations lie, and where they would like to be in 5-10 years from now. After this assessment, you need to make a structured plan with goals and intermediate meetings to check how the growth is progressing and if adjustment is needed.

Do you need help making growth plans? Click here.

In conclusion

Employers need to be aware of what motivates employees today and tomorrow, because what is true for today might be ‘yesterday’s news’ for tomorrow. Want to stay up to date? Get in touch with us and see how we can get you prepared to hire the right JOINERS and turn them into STAYERS.

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