I’ve arrived at work on too many Mondays (and probably Wednesdays or Thursdays, too) to feel something all too common: lack of motivation. Perhaps I didn’t sleep well, or I was stressed the previous day, or I worked out too little or too much, or I ate my customary nightly bowl of cereal too late—whatever the cause, when you feel it you know the day ahead is going to be a battle against yourself. Surveys have shown I’m not alone here, as nearly 70% of millennials report feeling disengaged and unmotivated at work.
While there is no known cure to intermittent bouts of demotivation and procrastination (even the best of us face these problems), research does provide a guide to what employees need to feel motivated to work hard without constant poking and prodding from nitpicking managers. These three needs are competence, relatedness, and autonomy.
There’s no question that it feels good to be good at something. Even if that activity is not inherently interesting, one can become motivated to do it simply because one is competent at it.
In the work world, it is the same for employees. As employees become better at a given task, they will naturally become more motivated to complete that task. Of course, work consists of many different activities throughout the day, so it’s important to think about how jobs can be crafted such that employees work on more of the tasks they are competent at and, hence, fewer of the ones they struggle at.
Human beings have a natural need to belong, even the most introverted among us. Sure, some people prefer to fulfill their need to belong and relate to others outside the confines of their workplace, but it still is beneficial to feel some degree of closeness and camaraderie with coworkers (as long as you don’t spend so much time chitchatting that you can’t finish your work).
As alluded to, the need for relatedness does not mean you are necessarily best friends with your coworkers; it just means that you have enough of a bond and closeness with others that you don’t feel lonely, which is unfortunately quite common and detrimental to organizations.
And the most motivating of all is, of course, telling your manager exactly what jobs you’re willing to do today and which you aren’t…OK, maybe that’s not possible if you want to keep your job; there are certain tasks that simply have to get done, no matter how unpleasant they may be. What can help in this case is having the autonomy to decide how you complete these tasks.
Maybe keeping track of your hours and filing them monthly is your least favorite part of the month. It can feel like not only tracking the hours but also plugging them into the archaic tracking system takes 10x longer than it should. It would behoove managers to perhaps allow you to use the newest cool app that tracks hours on each project and auto-exports to Excel with just a quick tap on your phone. While this may be frustrating for some managers who want control, it’s certainly better than getting the reports one month late—or not at all. (Maybe this can be a good time to update your systems as well!)
Organizations that are able to structure their workplace such that employees feel competent, close with others, and free to decide how work gets done will be best positioned to motivate employees, which results in higher performing organizations where people are engaged with their work over the long-run.
As unemployment continues to flirt with record lows and the war for talent rages on, organizations that do not think about these three needs may find employees dillydallying around the office for years before moving on to organizations that do consider what they need most.