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When Motivation Isn’t Enough: Inspire Employees to Strive

Have you ever called a “push-truck” to take your car to the mechanic?

Probably not, and for good reason – in physics, when one object pushes another on a level surface the weight of the object pushes back and creates more friction. The result? More force has to be applied.

Now, when you pull a heavy object, the pulling force is only working against the friction of the object itself, and therefore less force is needed; hence the “tow-truck.”

What does an understanding of pushing and pulling have to do with leading organizations?

More than you might think. How often have you heard leaders say, “We need to figure out what drives our employees,” or read blog titles proclaiming, “The 10 Drivers of Employee Engagement.” Motivation isn’t enough; you have to inspire your employees to strive.

Driving isn’t Inspiring

Driving is another word for pushing, and organizations have been using motivation tactics in this spirit for the last century. Unhappy employees? Give them more money, better benefits. Low performers? Reward positive behaviors and the negative ones will subside. Experiencing high turnover and trouble recruiting talent? Let’s keep them here with in-facility gyms and bring-your-dog-to-work days.

The problem: These pushing (motivation) tactics give a quick boost but don’t seem to be working for the long term.

If you are in your office right now, chances are at least one of the people in the offices on either side of you dislikes their job. With Gallup finding that 70 percent of Americans are disengaged in their work, managers and leaders are scrambling to motivate their workforce. All while the newly arrived millennials are clamoring for more purpose at work.

It’s time for a change in how we motivate employees. And focusing on what pulls people may not only result in a higher-performing employees but more importantly, it may inspire happier people.

Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, in the classic article Self-Transcendence as a Human Phenomenon wrote, “It is one of the immediate data of life experience that man is pushed by drives but pulled by meaning.”

This pull or “will to meaning” as Frankl termed it, incites people to strive to fulfill a higher purpose and achieve goals that exist outside the self. Striving for something that transcends self has been found to be powerful in the workplace.

That power comes from capitalizing on the search for meaning – a quintessential trait of all human life. By creating an environment that allows the will to meaning to thrive, you can inspire a striving workforce. Here’s how.

Make Your Organization’s Work a Calling

A calling is defined by psychologists as a transcendent summons (a call from outside the self) to do particular work for the good of society.

Psychologists Bryan Dik and Ryan Duffy’s research found when employees felt a sense of calling in their jobs they were more committed to their organizations, more intrinsically motivated and engaged, and more satisfied with their jobs.

A calling is not solely reserved for non-profit work. Dik and Duffy studied workers from custodial workers to white-collar workers and found similar results on the transformative role of a calling.

A calling has three dimensions: (1) the source of motivation exists outside of self, (2) there must be a compelling purpose, and (3) that purpose is other-centered.

Every human brain is wired to find meaning. If you don’t give your people a common meaning, then they will create their own.

Therefore, having a stated higher organizational purpose that clearly articulates the benefit of the organization to society and embedding that purpose in processes from recruitment, onboarding, and training, to performance management plans and reward structures can transform both people and processes.

Articulating and enacting a purpose that is compelling and global pulls people out of isolation and collectively orients people toward something that is outside the cramped confines of self and ego. It inspires striving.

Give People a Shared Vision Worth Committing To

Steve Jobs once said, “If you are working on something exciting that you really care about, you don’t have to be pushed. The vision pulls you.”

The vision of your organization has to be more important than the organization itself. Systems theory tells us we are all integral parts of a large, complex, and ever-expanding system. That means your organization not only exists, it exists in and of the world and society.

Developing a shared vision that compels people to get out of bed every morning is critical.

Peter Senge, in The Fifth Discipline wrote, “Organizations intent on building shared visions continually encourage members to develop personal visions. If people don’t have their own vision, all they can do is ‘sign up’ for someone else’s. The result is compliance, never commitment.”

By getting to know individuals’ personal visions for their lives, you can make sure they hear their voice in the organization’s vision. When a vision incorporates personal visions it becomes a shared vision, and when that vision articulates a striving to change the world for the better, it becomes a compelling shared vision.

A vision worth committing to is vital. Are people really going to work hard to be the best consulting firm in the world or meet a sales goal? Maybe in the short term, but it doesn’t last. Do you help a friend in need so you can be the best friend in the world?

People naturally want to help, and capitalizing on the positive effects of other-centered values to create a vision worthy of commitment can improve your organizational environment.  

Reward Other-centered Behaviors

A recent study by psychologist Adam Grant and colleagues examined cold-calling fundraisers at a university. The researchers divided the workers into two groups. One group of workers had the opportunity to hear the story of a student that was a recipient of a scholarship and the second group did not.

The researchers found the workers in the group who knew the story of the fund’s recipient and the difference the money made in the pursuit of her dreams, made double the amount of phone calls and raised three times the amount of money when compared to the group who did not hear the recipient’s story.

By rewarding employees for behaviors that serve others, you may be more effectively orienting them toward something higher while capitalizing on their desire for meaning. When workers hold these prosocial values, they are more likely to perform at higher levels and also more likely to demonstrate care for one another.

This environment of care creates the foundation for a striving workforce.

So, instead of asking the questions of what drives employees, maybe we should be asking: What pulls them forward? What gives them meaning? What gives them purpose…in their lives?


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Zach is speaker, trainer, consultant, and blogger who focuses on how people find meaning and purpose at work. He studies organizational learning, performance and change and his research interests include the meaning of work, emotional organizational commitment, training and development, and authentic leadership. His research has been featured in scholarly publications such as the Human Resource Development Review and showcased at the Academy of Human Resource Development International Research Conference.

  • Rick Fairfield

    Solid article. Great, inspiring ideas. Indeed, your last sentence is food for thoughts!

    • Zach Mercurio

      Thank you for reading, Rick!

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