Science of Self ™ Knowledge Centre

The Most Magnificent Motivators

Oct 20, 2011


In this series, we are talking about 6 key drivers that come up time and again in the research on employee engagement. This is part of #6: The Right Mix of Rewards.

For a long time it was believed (and in some backward businesses it still is) that if you wanted to have more satisfied, motivated workers, then the only thing you had to do was pay higher wages. Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory (1959) head kicked this notion by being first to suggest something that would turn out to be fundamental to employee engagement and has been taught in universities ever since. He said that the absence of certain elements (like money) in the workplace will serve to de-motivate employees, but the presence of offering more material rewards will not help to gain their commitment.


Herzberg described “hygiene” elements which included pay, security, status, company policy and administration, work conditions, and supervision. To paraphrase Herzberg's theory, the hygiene factors will "tick you off" if your employer doesn't get them right, but they are not sufficient psychological fuel to cause you to go "above and beyond" for the company.

The implication was very important: employee engagement could not be directly bought.

The theory goes on to name the true motivating factors as achievement, recognition, the work itself, responsibility, advancement, and opportunities for growth.

Building on Herzberg's list, below is a mixture of current research and thinking on the sorts of rewards (or motivators) that are relevant to employee engagement.

Survey Says...

Gallup: Gallup's employee engagement work is based on more than 30 years of in-depth behavioural economic research involving more than 17 million employees, which represents the most comprehensive analysis of engagement done in the world. As part of this research, Gallup found 12 things that best predict workplace performance. The following 6 were found to be the most revealing and powerful, from the employee's perspective:

  1. Being clear on what is expected of them
  2. Having the right materials and equipment
  3. Having the opportunity to play to their strengths every day
  4. Received recognition in the past 7 days
  5. Being cared for
  6. Someone encourages their development

More info

Aon Hewitt: Trends in Global Employee Engagement research from 2008 to 2010 represents 6.7 million employees working in over 2,900 organisations. The top 5 global engagement drivers were:

  1. Career Opportunities
  2. Brand Alignment
  3. Recognition
  4. People/HR Practices
  5. Organisational Reputation

More info

McKinsey: A global McKinsey survey of 1,047 executives, managers and employees found that the number one motivator for employees was recognition in the form of:

  • Praise from the boss
  • Attention from leaders in the form of one-on-one meeting
  • Giving people more responsibility (e.g. the opportunity to lead a project)

More info

AIM (Australian Institute of Management): Surveyed 2,928 people in 2006, which was released in the report What Keeps Employees Engaged with their Workplace? One of the key findings was that meaning, purpose and relationships are the key motivational influences in retaining employees. The 3 most important factors keeping people engaged were:

  1. A sense of purpose and meaning in my job
  2. A good relationship with my co-workers
  3. A good relationship with my manager

More info

Blessing White: Employee Engagement Report 2011 is the result of interviews with 11,000 employees. Among the top drivers of job satisfaction were:

  • Opportunities to apply their talent
  • Career development
  • Training

More info

TED Says...


"Play promotes engagement!" Steve Keil: A manifesto for play, for Bulgaria and beyond


"Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose!" Dan Pink: The surprising science of motivation


"Don't leave your happiness in the hands of your employer!" Nigel Marsh: How to make work-life balance work

Schwartz Says...


Leading expert on engagement and author of The Power of Full Engagement, Tony Schwartz wrote a popular article on Harvard Business Review called The 12 Attributes of a Truly Great Place to Work. These include:

Give all employees a stake in the company's success, in the form of profit sharing, or stock options, or bonuses tied to performance.

  • Design a comfortable workplace
  • Provide healthy food
  • Let employees take naps
  • Allow them to workout
  • Provide opportunities of learn, develop and grow

More info

RedBalloon Says...


RedBalloon is a business solely dedicated to rewards. The 2011 Isync and RedBalloon Dream Employers Survey asked which factors employees liked about working for their employer. The top retention drivers were work-life balance (46%); culture (39%); and pay, benefits and conditions (33%). RedBalloon founding director Naomi Simson said: "Rewards and recognition are vital in attracting, developing and retaining key talent, and having a great company culture and high levels of employee engagement will be crucial once the thrill of a fatter pay cheque has worn off.”

More info

We Says...

As you can see, the number of perspectives could go on for quite some length. There are a lot of different conclusions that research has drawn about what engages us, and this is largely due to different sample sizes, definitions of engagement and methods of investigation, but there are also many common patterns that are shared across the research.

Interestingly, many researchers acknowledge the importance of pay and material rewards. However, most have found that other factors are more important when it comes to falling in love with your company. Factors like; having a beautiful office environment, flexible hours, friends at work, regular recognition, new opportunities to learn and grow, creative assignments, interesting work, a fun culture, a good boss, or simply the sense of feeling appreciated. These things don't really seem to be very remarkable at first glance. They are, however, frequently sited as being fundamental to loving work.

One of the factors that we have found to be incredibly important is understanding that people can find the same work rewarding and engaging, but for different reasons. While one person loves the design and layout of the office because it is beautiful and balanced, another likes that it is different and unique. Both like the working environment, but for different reasons.

By this, we are talking about individual values.

People are motivated by what they value. Yet, all people are not motivated by the same things. Some people are very strongly motivated by money, while others want power and status. Then there are those who couldn't care less about such things - they see much more potential in opportunities to learn, or to experience the richness of life, or to help other people in their community.

It's strange in our culture that very few people take the time to understand the thing that is by far the most important factor for personal fulfilment: alignment to our core values.

One model that can help with understanding these differences is the Workplace Motivators Assessment. This validated, objective assessment, provides us with a report detailing a person's core values. The resulting "cheat sheet" allows us to understand how to motivate, manage, inspire and engage each individual through the lens of their values.

core values


Topics: Employee Engagement- Motivators & Drivers

Theo Winter

Theo Winter

Client Services Manager, Writer & Researcher. Theo is one of the youngest professionals in the world to earn an accreditation in TTI Success Insight's suite of psychometric assessments. For more than a decade, he worked with hundreds of HR, L&D and OD professionals and consultants to improve engagement, performance and emotional intelligence of leaders and their teams. He authored the book "40 Must-Know Business Models for People Leaders."


Welcome to Science of Self™ 

Our knowledge centre holds over 400 articles shared through the Science of Self™ newsletter. The topics are relevant to the fields of talent management, human resources, organisational development and business growth.

As the title suggests, we take an evidence-based approach to sharing content about people in the context of work. If you like what you see, consider signing up below!

Newsletter Sign-Up

Designed For You

Going out every 3 weeks, the Science of Self™ newsletter brings interesting, fresh and topical content to professionals in Talent Management, Human Resources, Learning & Development, People & Culture, Organisational Development, General Management and Consulting.

100% Privacy. No Spam.

Recent Posts

The Future of Work

Looking for a practical guide to help you rewire your business for the future of work?

Read More