It’s Not About The Ping-Pong Table
It’s Monday morning and Ashley wakes up early, unable to sleep due to a mix of excitement and anxiety. Today is day one of her new job. When she arrives, someone takes her picture to be used on her security badge. As she is escorted through the halls on the way to the new-employee orientation meeting, she receives lots of smiles from her soon-to-be coworkers. She passes by many of the things she was told about on the brief tour she took when she interviewed: the ping-pong table already occupied at 8:20 AM, the always-stocked snack cabinets, the soda machine, the hoverboards plugged into the charging ports, and the gaming stations.
As she makes her way past the cubicles, desks, and occasional offices on the way to her meeting, it seems like every other person is wearing some kind of company swag: shirts, hats, even jackets. When she enters the conference room, her eye catches a glimpse of the poster on the wall that announces the next company party. She thinks to herself, “Those parties are legendary in the valley! They give away so many cool prizes.” Ashley is stoked to be part of this company where culture is so important and so pronounced that you can taste it.
Eighteen months later, Ashley is looking for a new job.
This scenario is all too common and even more prevalent in today’s tight labor market. That’s why I asked individual contributor employees from all over Utah questions about what motivates them at work. As you read on, you’ll see that not one person said anything about company perks. The lesson for managers, founders, and CEOs? Don’t let the fancy soda machines and gaming stations make you think you’re building a meaningful culture. More importantly, don’t let “the perks” provide you with a false sense of security that what you’re doing will actually motivate your employees.
Should you consider taking away the perks, parties, and picnics? Only if you want a revolt of the masses pounding on the castle door! Employees definitely enjoy added incentives and they’ll never ask you to take them away. They’ll even mention in the employee satisfaction surveys that they appreciate them. However, those aren’t the things that will keep your employees, or motivate them in the long term.
Who holds the power to best influence the motivation of an employee? Is it company leadership, the direct manager, or the employee’s peers? In my interviews, by nearly a three to one margin, employees said their manager that has the most influence (peers are second, company leadership is third). How does that jive with the long-held belief that culture starts at the top? Perhaps that notion is true in a broader sense, but for individual employees, motivation influence lies with those who are directly connected to the employee―namely the manager and the employee’s peers. As one person told me, “I am not motivated at all by senior leadership, no matter how many motivational meetings we have with them.”
So let’s get to it. We asked your employees what does and doesn’t motivate them at work. Here’s what they said:
What Doesn’t Work
Jason H. “It’s ineffective when company leadership tries to get me excited about overall company revenue/profitability. Personal, team, and department goals are things I can help with. The more layers there are between me and whatever goal we’re discussing, the less valuable my contributions feel. Thinking about overall revenue just makes me feel small.”
Jacob C. “A demotivator is the ‘promise’ or ‘intention’ of growth opportunities and raises. In more than one company, I have been told that there’s a career path only to onboard and see that there isn’t a path or that those positions are being filled by external hires instead of internal promotions. In one case, I held out leaving for over a year after being promised a wage adjustment and title change that never came.”
Mark K. “I can’t stand active listening without action. In many cases, I have been able to provide feedback to managers who have declared an open-door policy to motivate the team. Those become quite lack-luster when the feedback goes in, but nothing comes back out.”
Brenda T. “I have been led on with promotions while doing the job I should have been promoted for. I have been told I would not be able to find my desired career path without my employer’s help.”
Kim K. “I’m not motivated when overly high expectations are set regarding a goal or a project and what is expected is unattainable.”
Sandy K. “Instead of addressing [sinking team morale], the company decided to push harder on their numbers and goals.”
Julian P. “Micromanaging is ineffective for me. Also, if I have a leader that I don’t like and who doesn’t show interest in me personally and I can tell they are in it for themselves, usually whatever they try to do to motivate me is ineffective because I don’t respect them.”
Keith O. “Offering swag items is ridiculously ineffective. Offering more perks, unless it’s more PTO or bonuses, is equally ineffective. Having huge annual, or quarterly meetings about how well the company is doing does not motivate me.”
Raquel L. “I really don’t get motivated by random drawings or competing against each other to win a small incentive (it led to unhealthy competition against teams―not promoting working together for success) or vision statements or mission statements that were not supported by actions from leadership.”
Sydney B. Demotivators? Having too many goals! Once you didn’t hit one day’s goals you were set back and it made the other goals nearly impossible to hit.”
Shelly M. “Motivation goes away when my manager says they are going to do things that they never end up doing.”
What Does Work
Sam J. “I’m motivated when I’m working on things I am interested in and seeing the results.”
Kyle W. “I have pride in my work. Plus, it is a direct reflection on me. I want people to trust that I will do a great job.”
Cindy A. “Seeing my work make a difference, feeling like I’m an ‘expert’ at what I do, and knowing that I’m appreciated is what motivates me.”
Kylie K. “I’m motivated if I feel like my work is making a difference.”
Krysten T. “Much of my motivation is tied to how interested I am in the actual projects I’m working on.”
Bryce D. “A huge motivation for me is knowing that my work is recognized by leadership. Letting me know they appreciate the work I’ve done, either privately or publicly.”
Stacy B. “I need validation of my work. That greatly motivates me to continue to work hard.”
Kami S. “Genuine and honest recognition means a lot to me, which means recognition and praise shouldn’t be given all the time to anyone who just does their job. If I go above and beyond, recognition is great. Rewards, whether it be gifts, activities, pay, etc., does play a role but it’s more meaningful and I’ll work harder if it’s a team goal. There is more accountability then and I’ll be more motivated to not let others down.”
Kimberly H. “Personally hitting challenging goals and receiving recognition or goal prizes is a huge motivation for me.”
Kam P. “I’m motivated by just a bit of praise on occasion.”
Steve W. “A good part of my motivation is tied to how much I like my manager.”
Kath R. “I am mostly motivated by trying to please my superiors. I also am very motivated to get verbal praises.”
Heather P. “Generous PTO and flexibility in my schedule greatly motivate me. It allows me to work with my family’s needs and gives me the breaks and flexibility I need to avoid getting burnt out. When I have this balance, I am more productive while I am at work.”
Steph B. “Autonomy to run my own schedule.”
Peter T. “Knowing someone else is counting on me.”
Ryan S. “A personal desire to succeed at whatever I do. To not let any of my coworkers down.”
Tasha C. “I’m motivated by knowing I am making a contribution to our larger initiatives and the success of the company. I believe that all ships rise with good work from all contributors.”
Kevin J. “I’m motivated by self-pride (in a good way!). I want to be seen as a reliable colleague/employee. When given a task or a sale to close, I want to be trusted to carry out the task successfully. Knowing that I’m a key part of a small family business keeps me in line. I know I can’t slack or it’ll affect the whole company.”
Kylie P. “When I see everyone on my team/company also doing great work that inspires me to work harder/smarter.”
Mike T. “I do great work when there is an opportunity to learn more skills and be better at my profession. If I’m stuck doing the same thing and not growing, I get bored and restless.”
Tim D. “Having a clear vision of what I can move into moving forward is pretty essential. I’ve left previous employers simply because I’ve been told I’m topped out and there’s no position or promotion to aspire to. A career path is a long-term goal to work towards.”
Sarah E. “If I feel like my employer values me and my talents and provides opportunities for growth and promotion, I am much more motivated at my work.”
What It All Means
I’ve been a C-level executive for 20 years. I’ve worked for some great CEOs and founders who have understood the power of a culture filled with motivated employees―those employees will run through brick walls for you. That kind of motivation only comes if they believe in the company’s purpose, get to do meaningful work, see room to grow, and feel appreciated for what they do. As you’d imagine, those things don’t just happen. It takes an effort to build that kind of culture. It takes leaders who aren’t just checking a box by offering a party and few perks. It comes by caring enough about your employees to invest in that culture.
Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group said: “I have always believed that the way you treat your employees is the way they will treat your customers and that people flourish when they are praised.”
We know great company cultures can be built. There are examples of this all around us. The question is, will yours be one of them?