EZ Scaffold Corp.
EZG Manufacturing
Federated Insurance
Fraco USA, Inc.
Hohmann and Barnard, Inc.
Husqvarna Construction Products N.A.
Hydro Mobile, Inc.
iQ Power Tools
Kennison Forest Products, Inc.
Mortar Net Solutions
Non-Stop Scaffolding
Southwest Scaffolding
Tradesmen's Software, Inc.
January 3, 2001 7:16 AM CST

Employee Motivation: A Glance at the Research

What your customers and employees really want


Picture this: After asking two of your employees to work on an important new project, both respond enthusiastically. One tells you that the extra money he'll earn from the project will help him make a down payment on a new house he'd like to buy. The other employee enthusiastically tells you that this opportunity will be a tremendous boost to her career.

Or how about this? Two customers express their thanks for a high-quality product you recently sold them. One makes it a point to mention the deep respect your salesperson showed her. The other tells you that, as a result of buying the product, she's saving a lot of time each day.

Clearly, the two employees in the first example and the two customers in the second are motivated by very different desires. And that's true of people everywhere. An individual's motives and desires can be influenced by his or her income (or lack of it), family circumstances, health, hobbies, values, even childhood upbringing.

No two people are alike. So if you want to motivate individuals to do things, you must understand the burning needs and desires they feel. The more thoroughly you understand these desires, the more successful you'll become in managing your employees or selling to your customers.

So what motivates people? Here's a starter list:

Physical Security
People everywhere want to be safe from harm and free from deep financial worries. Picture the customer who decides to frequent places of business which offer public, well-lit parking areas. Or the employee who gladly assumes extra responsibilities in order to earn higher compensation. Both individuals are exercising their desire to remain safe and secure.

Emotional Security
For many individuals, emotional security is just as powerful a motivator as physical security. They may seek consistency in their lives. They may want to avoid worry. They may want to pick and choose their own challenges. The customer willing to pay a higher per-unit price for a product in return for quick, no-hassle delivery offers an example of this phenomenon. The employee who feels compelled to give her boss a weekly statistical report and consult him at every turn may be doing so out of a deep need to maintain a smooth working relationship.

Most people, of course, want physical comfort: moderate temperatures, clean and bright surroundings, relaxing furniture, and a myriad of other small pleasures of life. But comfort can also include the ability to take vacations, amass some measure of personal wealth, or indulge oneself in a favorite pastime. The customer who appreciates the plush waiting room or the employee who looks forward to the refreshments provided at your weekly staff meeting might feel these comfort needs being met.

Some people have a burning desire to succeed. They need to bring tasks and projects to a satisfying end. The customer anxious to put the finishing touches on a complex deal or the employee who works two weekends straight to complete an important report are both examples of people striving for achievement.

Just about everyone has a skill or accomplishment worth bragging about -- and most people want to be recognized for these skills. The employee who expresses delight when asked to consult on a thorny problem probably experiences a deep sense of pride when asked. So does the customer who beams at a compliment over his clothing.

People are, first and foremost, individuals with unique accomplishments, beliefs and idiosyncrasies. Most people have an "ideal" image of themselves: a favorable set of attributes they believe they possess. When you show appreciation of the employee who has a habit of wearing offbeat lapel pins, for instance, or the customer who exhibits eccentricities, you may well be affirming their sense of identity -- and building a strong bond with them.

Esteem is closely related to pride and identity. People who hold high esteem feel good about themselves; people motivated by esteem are gratified by the belief that their efforts are worth something to other people. You reinforce feelings of esteem when you thank and compliment the customer who calls defective service to your attention. Ditto for the words of praise you offer an experienced employee when you tell her that you don't know what you'd do without her.

People want to be accepted by others. They want friends and peers to recognize them, talk to them, like them, build relationships with them. The customer who seeks out a particular member of your sales staff to share family news, for example, may be satisfying his need for community.

To some degree, everyone longs for a future filled with promise. Some people are especially goal-oriented, and yearn with anticipation for the rich benefits the future holds out for them. The employee who values the informal career counseling you're able to offer may well be motivated by a strong sense of hope. You may foster similar feelings among some customers or prospects by subtly reminding them of exciting new products and services that will eventually make their lives easier.

While human beings crave some degree of consistency, most people enjoy making new friends, traveling to new places, or experiencing new activities. For some people, the need for new sensations is very powerful. Consider the customer anxious to deal with you because of an imaginative new product you're offering. Or the employee who redoubles his efforts when he's appointed to a special committee.

Many researchers suggest that the leading cause of stress today is an inability on the part of people to control what happens to them. People want to feel "in charge" of their lives and relationships, make their own plans, and control the outcome of their own actions. Visualize the angry customer who, when confronted by a solicitous member of your staff, suddenly becomes courteous herself. The customer feels that her need to assume control of an unpleasant situation is being met. An employee asked to take on a difficult task may feel her need for power met when you humbly note that she can make a real difference in the success of the project.

Psychologists say that many people are highly motivated by a set of values or ideals larger than themselves, typically religious beliefs or philanthropic ideals. The customer who expresses great satisfaction over a portion of his payment being donated to a charity might offer an example of this. So might the employee who takes on a business-sponsored volunteer project.

The need to solve problems in new ways, to pursue new ideas, and to create is as old as mankind. The employee who takes delight in coordinating pilot projects, or the customer who becomes involved in customizing his own product or service may both be motivated by creativity.
The closer you listen to employees and customers, the more you'll learn what makes them tick -- and the more effectively you'll be able to motivate them. You'll quickly learn, too, that it's not just salary, fringe benefits and working conditions that motivate them; rather these tangible needs are only a small part of a mosaic of deep-seated needs and desires that shape the actions of the people around you.

A Glance at the Research
Thousands of studies about motivation in the workplace have been conducted over the years. The famous Hawthorne Studies, a compilation of workplace research conducted at the Western Electric Company in the 1920's, provided a telling glimpse into the importance of personal attention to employees. Researchers found that, as lighting was gradually increased or as bulbs were changed on the workplace floor, productivity increased. But productivity also increased when lighting decreased. The reason: employees felt that someone was interested in their efforts, and responded with high output.

More recently, Douglas McGregor postulated differences between employees who respond to "Theory X" and "Theory Y" styles of management. Theory X employees, according to McGregor, disliked work and required direction and external motivation before they would perform effectively. Theory Y employees, on the other hand, were self-motivated and used their internal needs as the basis for their performance.

A. H. Maslow developed one of the most famous motivational theories of all time. Maslow said that an individual's motives are rooted in a hierarchy of five broad needs: safety needs, social needs, ego needs, esteem needs and personal fulfillment needs. As the individual meets one set of needs, he or she "progresses" to a different, "higher" set of needs.

Frederick Herzberg, in his studies of satisfied and dissatisfied employees, found that the most satisfied employees experienced a high degree of personal achievement, recognition, interesting work, and the opportunity to take on new challenges. Satisfied employees generally disliked strict supervision, lack of communication on the job, and overly rigid policies.

These, and other research studies, make fascinating reading to any manager interested in workplace motivation.

This subject will undoubtedly remain a favorite topic of researchers. But we already know two things for sure: first, the needs of employees are varied, and second, managers who remain tuned in to the needs of individual employees stand the best chance of motivating them effectively.

Ten Motivational Tips for the Busy Manager
  1. Remember that people are individuals. What motivates one individual may not motivate another.

  2. Most people must meet their basic safety and security needs before "higher level" needs, such as esteem, creativity and pride come into play.

  3. Keep both the needs of the workplace and the needs of individual employees in mind as you set goals. The more closely workplace and employee goals resemble each other, the easier your job of motivating employees will be.

  4. Discuss the needs of your employees in your one-to-one supervisory meetings.

  5. Remember that your words carry weight and power. When you talk with employees, use your words to reinforce the needs you're trying to meet.

  6. Offer informal career and life counseling to employees. Do what you can to help them meet their future needs.

  7. Try to learn what has motivated individual employees in the past. Use what you learn as the basis for your actions in the future.

  8. Understand the personal pressures your employees face. Don't get heavily involved in their personal affairs, but try to learn which of their needs are not being met -- and act accordingly.

  9. Help employees meet your needs and theirs by setting specific "contracts" for completion of work or objectives.

  10. When an employee feels especially anxious or depressed about work, suggest he or she see an outside counselor. If you have access to an Employee Assistance Program, make use of it.

About the Author

Masonry, the official publication of the Mason Contractors Association of America, covers every aspect of the mason contractor profession - equipment and techniques, building codes and standards, business planning, promoting your business, legal issues and more. Read or subscribe to Masonry magazine at


Related Articles

More Masonry Headlines

“The MCAA is passionate about masonry and keeps me up-to-date on industry news.”

Michael Sutter
Sutter Masonry, Inc.
MCAA member since 1995

Learn More