The Great Motivation Reset

Shifts that occurred during the global pandemic impact how managers should approach motivation and recognition.

It’s a sign of the unique work world we are in that The Wall Street Journal introduced a new weekly podcast in March called “As We Work.” Billed as “a new podcast for a new world of work,” the show’s host, Tess Vigeland, has promised to address the seismic shifts that have occurred and continue to occur in both blue-collar and white-collar workplaces.

The immediate transition to work-from-home set-ups for most office workers in March 2020 eventually initiated conversations about the way we work and what role our jobs should play in our lives. The pandemic — and the shifts that occurred during it — “led to unprecedented resignations and a change in the power dynamics between workers and management,” the Journal states in an article introducing the “As We Work” podcast. “It has forced companies to rethink longstanding assumptions about how to recruit, how to promote and how to motivate.”

There is some irony in the Journal’s decision to hire Vigeland to host the podcast. After working as an on-air personality for public radio for 11 years, including six as the host of the nationally broadcast “Marketplace Money,” Vigeland stepped away from the work world in 2012 without a “next step” in mind. She vagabonded around Asia for more than a year, then returned to the U.S. and shared her thoughts on these life-changing decisions in a book entitled “Leap: Leaving a Job With No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want.”

“I was a quitter before quitting was cool. It’s weird to watch it happen, but now it’s a norm,” she said in an interview with Chris Hill, host of the podcast “Motley Fool Money.” “This has been such a transformation in how people are thinking about the role of work in their lives.”

That transformation has left managers wondering how to best keep their teams motivated as some workers return to the office, some work to reach agreement regarding hybrid arrangements, and some likely ponder the meaning of their jobs altogether and whether they want to continue performing them.

“It must be a nightmare to be a hiring manager right now because, depending on the role, it can be pretty easy to leave one job and start a new one,” Hill said. “How do companies recreate the fun perks that require in-person gathering?”

“An even more baseline question is do workers even care about those things at this point?” Vigeland responded, adding later, “Everything is so weird!”

Get Personal

The weirdness in the work world is reflected in the headlines and in conversations showing up in all types of media.

  • A New York Times special report, “The Future of Work,” addressed the age of anti-ambition.
  • In an opinion piece written for The Wall Street Journal, Nitin Nohria, former dean of Harvard Business School, suggested that the post-pandemic office should function more as a clubhouse, where colleagues convene to engage in informal conversations “that might resemble what we think of as ‘happy hour.’ ”
  • The Spring 2022 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review includes a report on research that shows happy employees broadly outperform workers who are not happy. (See page 6)
  • Always of interest is the annual Gallup poll on worker engagement. Gallup reports that the percentage of engaged workers in the U.S. declined in 2021 to 34%, the first drop in more than a decade.

Perhaps the most important impact of the workplace shifts that have occurred during the last two years is an increased awareness of employers’ responsibility to monitor and even promote well-being.

Vigeland’s question whether perks such as free lunches and Friday social hours are desirable is a good one. Thought leadership emerging out of the COVID years is that what’s most important to emphasize is the human aspect of employer- employee relationships. In a Gartner survey conducted in January 2021, 47% of employees reported that their stress was higher than anything they’d previously experienced in their career, and only 37% agreed that their organization understood what they needed in their personal lives and for their families.

Managers have traditionally been cautioned about delving too deeply into workers’ private lives, but the Gartner report and an article in the March-April issue of Harvard Business Review promote connecting more with employees’ lives outside of work. “Employees want their managers to know about their personal commitments and to make accommodations where possible,” Dion Love, vice president in Gartner’s HR practice, told HBR.

To that end, the Gartner report recommends that company leaders promote personal growth in addition to training that fosters professional growth. That can mean creating entry ramps for workers to community service or covering the cost of education that is not work-related, such as language courses.

Finding Purpose

One of the biggest workplace buzzwords to emerge from the last two years is “purpose.” To be sure, the movement to make work matter started before the global pandemic, mostly at

the urging of millennials and Gen Z workers. The purpose of work — a company’s mission and its impact on the world — is more top-of-mind than ever.

Just as the line between our work world and personal lives has blended, so too has the line between work and larger societal goals. According to the Gartner report, employees want to feel invested in their organization’s purpose.

Approximately 53% say they want their leaders to take a stand on societal issues they care about. Seventy percent of employees say they feel included when their company takes a stand they approve of, and 68% feel included even when they disapprove of that stand.

Business strategists Scott Goodson and Chip Walker of the marketing agency StrawberryFrog published their book, “Activate Brand Purpose” last year. In it, they provide a road map for corporate leaders to identify their company’s larger purpose and drive home that meaning to the people who matter inside the company and out.

One example they give is from StrawberryFrog client SunTrust Banks, which introduced onUp, a national movement the company launched in 2016 to help the 75% of Americans who reported experiencing financial stress. The program provided online resources available to anyone to help them take the first step toward financial confidence. In addition, the program provided financial wellness workshops through employee volunteer efforts and offered a not-for-profit workplace financial wellness program, Momentum onUp, to other companies.

“All of a sudden, [SunTrust] employees had a much better idea of why it is they get up and go to work in the morning,” Walker said in a podcast interview with Sales & Marketing  Management. “It started to inspire actions internally.” He adds that, as with the SunTrust example, a company’s purpose should be connected to the business in some way or it risks being called out as inauthentic.

“More people are thinking of their work as a career and not work as something that is just for a paycheck,” said Ayelet Fishbach, a behavioral psychologist, professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and author of the book “Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation,” which was published earlier this year. “Purpose is a way to get people to understand what they are contributing that is beyond themselves and the daily tasks,” she said in an interview with SMM.

In a multi-story special report on finding purpose in corporate America that was published in the same spring issue of HBR, Harvard Business School Professor Ranjay Gulati states the most compelling purpose and mission statements have two basic and interrelated features. They delineate an ambitious long-term goal for the organization, and they shape that goal so that it commits to the fulfillment of broader social duties.

Set Goals, Not Chores

Fishbach points out that one common mistake managers make when aiming to motivate through goal setting is to create goals that feel more like a chore rather than an aspiration.

Emphasizing benefits over actions captures the purpose behind an action, describing what you’re trying to achieve rather than the actions that need to be taken to achieve it. “An abstract goal identifies the purpose of a goal, while a concrete one identifies the path to get there; it’s a means,” Fishbch states in her book.

Fishbach also recommends framing goals as “do” goals rather than “do not” goals. “For the goal to inspire, it needs to be framed in terms of gains, not losses. It needs to be something that you’re excited to do, not something that is awful,” she said.

One last point on the subject of goals — and this is something that has been identified by incentive program providers — is that self-selected goals are more effective than goals that are set by someone else, such as a manager.

“When I teach persuasion, I tell my students that persuasion is really successful when the person you are trying to persuade feels like they persuaded themselves. When it gets to motivation, this is even more extreme, because a goal that I personally commit to is so much more motivating than doing something because you asked me to do it,” she said.

The Impact of Progress on Motivation

An important insight that Fishbach shares in her book is that progress increases commitment to achieving a goal, but so can lack of progress. Each action that leads one closer to a finish line is a powerful motivator to continue making progress. Even an illusion of progress can have a positive impact.

Researchers partnered with a New York cafe to test the impact of illusory progress in a customer loyalty program. Half the group of customers were given a reward card offering a free coffee after they bought 10. The other half received a card that required 12 purchase stamps but two “bonus” stamps were already provided. The requirement for 10 purchases was the same for both groups to receive the free coffee, yet those participants who felt they were given a head start with the two bonus stamps came back to the caf. more often and filled in their reward card more quickly than those who did not receive a head start.

People become more committed to a goal that they are already invested in, Fishbach explains. (See the “Points Program” story on page 9 for more insights on how progress impacts motivation.)

Lack of progress can also be motivating. Fishbach says her studies show that novices — people with lower commitment — work harder when you emphasize what they have accomplished. Experts (or more experienced individuals) respond more if you highlight what is missing or what they have left to achieve. Paying attention to what you haven’t yet accomplished can encourage one to seek change and move forward. “You’re eager to either move up or move out,” she said.

Recognition Still Matters

All of this is not to suggest that companies can disregard staying competitive with salaries, stop offering employee perks or short-shrift celebrating achievement with non-cash rewards. “Instead of building a portfolio of ever-increasing offerings, benefits managers should focus on a ‘human deal’ that makes employees feel cared for financially, physically and emotionally,” the HBR article on rethinking the employee experience states.

The Incentive Research Foundation’s 2022 Trends Report reports that overall incentive budgets are expected to increase by 34% in 2022, with per-person spend increasing to $806 from $764 the prior year (although these budgets will need to accommodate price increases resulting from workforce, inventory, and supply chain challenges).

The report notes a shift to an employee-centric approach to recognition that aligns with the more personal management style already discussed. “While many incentive programs have traditionally focused on top performers and senior team members, incentive program owners are now working to close the gap between what tenured members of leadership teams value in terms of culture and what their employees value,” the report states. “Newer outcomes might include buy-in on return to office, a fully engaged remote workforce, and embracing evolving corporate goals.”

The global pandemic triggered a massive introspection on what work means and left people asking how much it should impact how they identify themselves. It also awakened business leaders to the fact they need to walk their talk when they say, as many have for so long, “our people are our most important asset.”


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