Business Leadership Today

The Role of Culture in Employee Motivation


Matt Tenney, Author of Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process

Employee engagement is on the rise, but evidence suggests employees’ stress levels are also rising. Stress is associated with declines in physical and mental well-being and can negatively impact employee engagement, performance, enthusiasm, retention, and a host of other factors. It can be particularly detrimental to employee motivation.

The rise in employee stress, and its potential negative effects on motivation, emphasizes the need for organizations to simultaneously address employee engagement and employee well-being. To do this, leaders need to understand what really motivates their employees to best meet their needs and engage them with their work.

Leaders should work continuously to create the necessary conditions for their employees to stay motivated to do great work and help them identify and remove obstacles to doing great work. But how? 

The answer is effective culture management.

Culture plays an important role in employee motivation because of its impact on the employee experience. Employees are more likely to stay motivated in a positive work culture that supports and values them, helps them grow and thrive, and provides a trusting, psychologically safe environment for them. 

This article will examine the vital role of culture in motivating employees and how effective culture management can boost intrinsic motivation for employees. 

Workplace Culture Explained

Workplace culture refers to the system of shared attitudes, beliefs, priorities, and values within an organization that guides the behaviors of all employees. 

Workplace culture provides much-needed context for an organization’s mission, vision, goals, and strategies. It helps employees not just understand the “how” of their jobs, it also helps them understand the “why,” which is essential for building engagement and motivation. 

Culture is the most important, yet often under-appreciated value driver of a company and has a tremendous impact on productivity, ethical compliance, innovation, performance, and long-term success.

Culture is the primary factor for determining how well an organization executes on every other aspect of organizational performance. It is also the most important competitive advantage an organization can have because it’s what makes an organization stand out from its competitors.

Employee Motivation Explained

Employee motivation is the level of energy, commitment, and creativity that employees bring to their roles and describes how invested they are in their job, how engaged they are with the organization’s goals, and how empowered they feel in their daily work to achieve those goals and reach their full potential. 

There are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. A certain amount of both is essential to leading highly motivated teams. 

Extrinsic motivation is motivation to participate in an activity based on meeting an external goal, earning praise or approval, winning a contest or competition, or receiving an award or payment. In the workplace salary and benefits are the biggest extrinsic motivators.

Intrinsic motivation is defined as doing an activity for its inherent rewards rather than for a separable consequence. 

If a person continues to work at an organization because they love the work they do, not because of the salary, that’s an example of intrinsic motivation at work. That person may be intrinsically motivated to improve and develop their skills, even if they are not offered a bonus or promotion to do so, or work late, even when they don’t have to.

Employee Motivation Matters

Motivation drives employee success and plays a vital role in employee satisfaction. Employee satisfaction drives performance, which, in turn, has a positive impact on customer satisfaction. 

When employees are motivated, they are better at adapting to change, better at collaborating, more willing to go above and beyond for a project, customer, or co-worker, and maintain a positive attitude at work. Having a team of highly motivated employees can also reduce turnover and absenteeism. 

Often, managers do not realize how necessary motivation is to lead well and ensure the organization’s future success. Or they mistakenly think that extrinsic motivators like compensation are enough to motivate team members to consistently perform well. 

But intrinsically motivated employees aren’t just working for a paycheck. They have a sense of purpose in their work and genuinely enjoy what they do.

How Can Culture Influence Employee Motivation?

Organizational culture can significantly impact the behavior and performance of employees, contributing to a high level of engagement and commitment that helps them consistently perform well. 

Culture both impacts and is impacted by leaders. In fact, leaders impact culture more than any other factor. They impact culture by establishing and clarifying norms that guide employees’ behaviors, maintaining working conditions that are conducive to collaboration and high performance, encouraging accountability, and helping employees connect their work to the organization’s vision.  

Leaders communicate and reinforce culture, which provides context for the organization’s mission, vision, goals, and strategies and helps to shape employee perceptions.

In a recent article, Business Leadership Today contributors Mark S. Babbitt and S. Chris Edmonds explained the important role leaders play in guiding culture so that it continues to support a positive work environment: “Leaders build culture based on the productive, positive behaviors they reward. Leaders tear down culture based on the destructive, demeaning behaviors they tolerate.”

To keep employees motivated, leaders have to both foster a positive culture that empowers, engages, and energizes employees and eliminate behaviors that turn cultures toxic and hurt morale.

How To Effectively Manage Culture To Boost Motivation

Good leaders use strategies that boost intrinsic motivation, resulting in employees that are more invested in their jobs.

Leaders keep teams motivated by building an organizational culture that supports a positive employee experience and a cooperative work environment that is psychologically safe for all team members by maintaining effective communication, giving feedback, recognizing contributions, being flexible, providing autonomy, encouraging collaboration, offering growth opportunities, and helping them see the impact of their work. 


To motivate them, leaders need to be able to communicate effectively with their employees. Clearly communicating goals, objectives, job duties, and expectations provides the clarity all employees need to stay motivated to do their jobs well and with self-confidence.


Employees need feedback on a regular basis to excel in their jobs and help them stay motivated. It provides not only job clarity, but also helps employees course correct when needed, develop an improvement mindset, and build confidence in their work.


Because it is such a powerful tool for building engagement, a sense of belonging, and motivation, recognition should always be part of the communication process. When employees’ contributions are recognized, they are up to 10 times as likely to strongly agree that they belong with the organization, and 80% of employees report being more productive when recognition and rewards are utilized to motivate them.


A recent survey of HR managers found that 70% of respondents cited flexibility as a driver of resignations, the most cited cause in the survey. Offering team members flexibility can not only reduce the likelihood that they will leave for another job, but it also helps team members stay motivated and engaged by improving work/life balance. 


Research has shown that motivated employees are more oriented towards autonomy and independence and are more self-driven than less motivated employees. By giving workers the autonomy they crave, you are forging strong, trust-based relationships with them and, at the same time, encouraging them to take ownership of their roles. This sense of ownership will keep them motivated to do their best work.


Did you know that putting work into a social context, even when the work is done independently, can improve a person’s motivation to work harder? Research has shown that social cues that signal an invitation to work collaboratively fuel intrinsic motivation even when people work independently. 


A recent Pew Research Center survey found that a lack of opportunities for advancement was among the top reasons US workers quit their jobs last year. Creating a clear path to growth, development, and advancement for employees shows employees that you want them to succeed. When they feel that you care about and encourage their growth and give them the means to grow, it can do wonders for motivation and performance. 


Helping your team members to see a bigger purpose in their work, find meaning in their day-to-day duties, and see the impact of the work they do can have a positive effect on motivation. For many people, work helps them meet their need to accomplish goals and make a difference in the world. Having a job where the work one does is purposeful and has a deeper meaning beyond the daily tasks improves motivation.

Matt Tenney has been working to help organizations develop leaders who improve employee engagement and performance since 2012. He is the author of three leadership books, including the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed book Inspire Greatness: How to Motivate Employees with a Simple, Repeatable, Scalable Process.

Matt’s ideas have been featured in major media outlets and his clients include numerous national associations and Fortune 500 companies.

He is often invited to deliver keynote speeches at conferences and leadership meetings, and is known for delivering valuable, actionable insights in a way that is memorable and deeply inspiring.

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