Business Leadership Today

The Most Important Element of Motivation for Employees

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

There are many factors that affect employee motivation. Many of those factors also affect engagement and retention. 

Feedback, recognition, opportunities for growth and advancement, leadership, and the work environment itself can all profoundly affect an employee’s motivation, level of engagement, overall satisfaction, and loyalty.

But the most important element of motivation for employees is often overlooked.

The most important element of motivation for employees is meaningful work that gives them a sense of purpose and something to work towards. Meaningful work can provide employees with the intrinsic motivation they need to engage with their work and continually perform their jobs well.

This article will explore the role of meaningful work in keeping employees motivated and how leaders can help their team members find purpose at work.

Why Meaning Matters at Work

Humans have an innate need to seek out meaning in their lives—even their work lives. 

Meaningful work has a purpose and creates an impact. When employees view their work as purposeful and impactful, they are committed to their work because they want to make a positive impact. 

According to McKinsey & Company, over the past 30 years, American workers have identified meaningful work as the most important aspect of a job— more important than income, job security, and the number of hours they work.

Having a meaningful job helps employees find a purpose at work, and it’s good for the organization. When employees find their work to be meaningful, their performance improves by 33%, their commitment to the organization increases by 75%, and they are 49% less likely to leave the organization. 

Like compensation, benefits, growth opportunities, and a positive work culture, meaningful work is an important factor in recruiting and retaining talented, engaged employees. 

Research has shown that nearly many U.S.-based employees feel that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused them to reflect more on their purpose in life. This signals that meaningful work will likely become an even bigger player in the recruitment process in the future and an increasingly important incentive for job-seekers. 

It’s also key in helping leaders build cultural buy-in. Leaders build cultural buy-in by tying purpose to the mission and core values of the organization and keeping employees always mindful of how their work achieves the organization’s vision.

How To Help Employees Find Meaning

Leaders who want to boost employee motivation help their team members find purpose in their roles by recognizing their contributions, making growth a priority, and measuring their performance with impact.

Recognize Their Contributions

Recognition meets a core human need for employees and reinforces more of the behaviors leaders want to see in their organizations. It increases engagement, performance, and quality of work. 

It also increases employee motivation because acknowledging and celebrating the hard work, achievements, and successes of employees lets them know they are valued and doing impactful work.  

For recognition to be most effective, there are a few good rules of thumb to follow:

Be Genuine

By finding an aspect of the employee’s performance you truly find praiseworthy, your recognition will be genuine and job-related. For example, you can recognize an employee’s ability to remain calm under pressure or handle difficult customers with tact and professionalism.

Keep It Specific

Recognition can be offered in a variety of ways, but it is always more useful for employees when it focuses on a specific action or behavior. Rather than generalizations, like “great job,” find detailed aspects of your employee’s performance to recognize.

Single Out Their Efforts

When an employee achieves something big for the organization it provides a great opportunity to recognize them. However, results-oriented praise, such as “Congratulations on landing that big account!” or recognition that focuses predominantly on profits, can be less effective than praising the efforts your employee made to achieve that outcome. 

Make It a Team Effort

While research clearly shows a link between recognition from top leadership and improved job performance and loyalty, encouraging employees to compliment and recognize the achievements of their co-workers creates a sense of community and fosters mutual respect, which sets the stage for successful collaboration.

Make Growth a Priority

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 and advancement by providing opportunities for learning, upskilling, cross-training, and career-pathing 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. 

Sara Canaday, author of Coaching Essentials for Managers: The Tools You Need to Ignite Greatness in Each Employee, says leaders should practice developmental coaching (not just performance coaching) to keep employees motivated:

“One of the best ways to get team members more engaged is to spend time with them through developmental coaching. When you demonstrate that you genuinely care about their career aspirations and want to support them, you can bet those employees will be ‘all in.’  To do it well, you need to really get to know your employees—their strengths, challenges, and professional goals.”

Measure Performance With Impact

Connecting the work they do to a greater cause helps employees see a bigger purpose in their work, find meaning in their day-to-day duties, and see the impact of the work they do. This can have a significant and 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.

Effective leaders measure performance with impact. They use impact, rather than quotas or profits, as a measure of success, and help employees see the connection between their day-to-day activities and the larger mission and vision of the organization.

In this video, Brandi Olson, author of Real Flow: Break the Burnout Cycle and Unlock High Performance in the New World of Work explains why individual performance should be measured with impact instead of perceived productivity.


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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