The 4 Basic Principles of Employee Motivation

31 Aug ‘22
4 min
Work performance
Editorial Board OpenUp
Gecontroleerd door Psychologist Ida Dommerholt

The question is as old as time: “How does motivation work?”. You aren’t the only one wracking your brain over it; people like Sigmund Freud, Aristotle, Adam Smith, and Abraham Maslow also tried to figure it out. And a lot of research is still being done into this widely debated topic. 


So, we’d like to walk you through various (modern) takes on this subject and how these can help you keep employees engaged. Because motivated employees are the secret to better company performance.  


Shared responsibility


Before we get started, let’s get this straight: Motivating employees is a shared responsibility. It’s the job of HR and the management team on the one hand and of the employees themselves on the other. In this article, we’ll be looking at what you as a (HR) manager can do.


The fundamental needs of employees


Researchers Nohria and Groysberg (Harvard Business School) and Lee (Center for Research on Corporate Performance), took a look at a large group of Fortune 500 companies. Based on their findings, they developed a new model for motivating employees and people in general. 


According to the researchers, people have four fundamental needs:


  1. Acquiring possessions: People need tangible possessions, like clothes, a house, and food, but they also need experiences like travelling and going to the theater. Lastly, we value our social status. This need for possessions is relative: We’re always comparing ourselves to other people. And it’s unstable: We always want more. 
  2. Commitment: People like to belong to something. To feel proud of their group or organization.
  3. Comprehension: People want to understand the world around them. We get frustrated when things seem pointless. The same is true at work. That’s why we want to make a meaningful contribution to an organization, we want to be challenged, and we want to grow and learn. 
  4. Protection: People naturally want to protect themselves, their homes and their families. At work, this tendency to protect others results in a need for safety and justice, to have clear goals and intentions, as well as transparency, and the ability to contribute our opinions. 


These basic needs as defined by Nohria, Groysberg and Lee, correspond nicely to Maslow’s eighty-year-old, but still widely-supported, theory: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs about people’s daily needs. 


Only when the bottom stages of the pyramid have been satisfied can a person begin working on their more advanced needs. 


Employees and self-motivation: Lacking Motivation? How to Stay Inspired and Engaged at Work.


How this helps you to motivate employees


Maslow suggests a “sequence”: First you need to meet your basic needs, before progressing on to your psychological needs and self-development.


In the workplace, this is a little different. The research by Nohria, Groysberg and Lee shows that employees are only truly motivated when all four needs (possessions, commitment, comprehension and protection) are met at the same time. 


So, how do you do this? We’re only too happy to explain:


  1. Possessions: Make sure the salaries you’re offering are at least as good as your competitors. Also, give out bonuses that clearly correspond to performance. This could be on an individual basis or as group. Then make sure you’re acknowledging outstanding performance. 
  2. Commitment: Commitment goes hand in hand with a good corporate culture. Encourage mutual trust and friendship between colleagues by offering plenty of time and space for informal contact. Place an emphasis on collaboration by promoting it and offering good facilities for this. Also encourage people to share best (and worst) practices. For example, by organizing weekly sessions, like “F*ck-up Friday”.
  3. Comprehension: Make sure roles are clearly defined within the organization and let people know how these contribute towards the success of the organization. Also make sure that there are plenty of opportunities for learning and development. 
  4. Protection: Increase transparency across all company processes and decisions. Create trust by also being transparent when it comes to giving out bonuses and allocating roles and projects. 


By focusing on all four needs, you’re targeting both the intrinsic motivation of employees (their desire to accomplish something) and their extrinsic motivation (the pursuit of rewards). 


The motivation checklist


The above theory is maybe a bit conceptual. For this reason, we’ve also looked at a range of companies – big, small, famous, unknown – and what they do to motivate their employees. 


Their motivation checklist:


  • Plenty of company outings: Whether purely focused on relaxation and bonding or charitable, for example all taking part in a sponsored run
  • Make a big deal of personal successes: For example, with a weekly news on everybody’s screensaver 
  • A well-thought-out retirement plan
  • Performance bonuses: Some for individuals, some for teams
  • Discussing company values during meetings and when communicating with employees
  • Organized childcare at work
  • Giving employees the option to buy shares so that they are part owners of the organization
  • Actively gathering feedback on employee needs (and then actually doing something with it)
  • An inspirational office environment, for example with personalized workstations that each employee gets a small budget for
  • Free gym subscription
  • A pet-friendly office environment, so that employees can bring in their dogs on one or a few days a week 
  • Personal development during office hours, like at Google where employees can spend 20% of their time on their own “pet projects”
  • Conversing with employees when important decisions are being made, for example through votes, polls or town hall meetings
  • Buddy system: Give each new employee a buddy with slightly more work experience to show them the ropes
  • Ditch the dress code
  • Involving employees in the process of hiring new staff
  • Actively encouraging employees to use their personal training budget, for example by imposing a (funny) forfeit if they haven’t spent the budget by December 31st.
  • “Gamify” boring tasks For example, by giving out points for every completed task and keeping a scoreboard
  • Coffee with the CEO: Daily or weekly, one or two people from all corners of the organization are allowed to chat with the CEO, meaning every voice is heard
  • Recognizing exceptional employee performance, like they do at Virgin Airlines: Thanking the employee with a personalized phone call or a handwritten letter 


By now you’ll see that you don’t have to be Freud, Aristotle, Smith or Maslow to understand how best to motivate your employees. Simply meet the basic needs of each employee and then get some inspiration from the motivation checklist above. You’re all set!