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Five ways to motivate employees

Five ways to motivate employees

A numb form of attention on the task at hand, a loss of commitment to the outcome, and a reduced effort and a drop in productivity. Does this sound familiar?

These are just a few of the characteristics of amotivation – a place where neither internal nor external drivers can push our actions towards reaching a goal. If you or your employees have experienced amotivation or a milder version, you will know that the impact of this can be detrimental to company outcomes and employee well-being.

Poor employee motivation has been associated with reduced productivity, poor outcomes and an increased risk of psychological dysfunction and job dissatisfaction. However, the workplace is a challenging environment for maintaining motivation, as many managers will know.

Having a clearer understanding of the types of motivation, their benefits, and the ways in which to build it, could be just what you need to shape the healthy, happy and successful team and business that you are looking for.

Unpacking Motivation: Why Money is Not Enough

The workplace is a complex environment and it’s not always easy to understand human motivation. The main reason for this is that there are two types of motivation:

  • Controlled Motivation: this is when our behaviours are performed because of external pressures. This can be positive – for recognition and reward, or negative-for meeting demands, fear of rejection or being fired.
  • Autonomous Motivation: this is when our behaviours are driven from our own volition, either for the pure joy of the activity or for the perceived value that activity provides us.

In the workplace, there is an inherent understanding that work is done for remuneration. Employees are paid for their time, efforts and outcomes, which implies that the motivation behind working is inherently external. This becomes complicated when managers see motivation dwindle, and want to provide another form of financial incentive to get motivation back in their employees. The truth however is that humans require much more than money to be motivated, engaged and satisfied.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943) proposed that we have basic needs which require satisfaction before we can experience physical and psychological health. This reputed thinking was built into the Self-Determination Theory (SDT), a comprehensive theory of human motivation. When it comes to motivation, SDT proposes three basic needs which drive our behaviour:

  • Autonomy: our desire to be independent and have control of our circumstances
  • Competence: our desire for mastery and skill development
  • Relatedness: the need to feel connected and belong to a social group

It is therefore clear to see why money alone cannot satisfy our basic psychological needs and provide the motivation necessary to build an engaged team of employees.

The Benefits of Autonomous versus Controlled Motivation

In order for employees to be, and stay, engaged and committed to their work, they require motivation. In the workplace, there are inherent external drivers which guide people to perform, and it is common practice for many managers to further feed into controlled motivation through creating incentives, rewards and mitigating demands. However, research shows that when there is a greater ratio of autonomous motivation to controlled motivation, employees are more persistent, have increased performance and show greater creativity and innovation.

Other benefits of autonomous motivation include:

  • Increased psychological well-being
  • Increased job satisfaction
  • Increased work engagement
  • Increased organisational commitment

But how can you increase autonomous motivation while still reaching the end goal and meeting deadlines?

The truth is that once employees feel that they are progressing in their career (Competence), are supported to make decisions for which they can take ownership (Autonomy), and feel that they belong to the team (Relatedness), they will feel driven about their work, and will experience satisfaction while reaching the goals of the organisation.

Five ways to increase autonomous employee motivation

Motivation can be a difficult challenge for managers, especially when employee productivity is low. However, with these approaches, managers can begin to build autonomous motivation rather than creating greater controls and external pressures for employees in the hopes of reaching outcomes.

  • Be an example

As the manager, you are an example of the company’s culture and systems. If you choose to take a more transformational leadership approach to get your employees motivated, you will notice the same shift in yourself. Find what it is that drives your passion and perseverance in your work, take ownership of what you would like to happen and run with it. And lastly, allow your employees to build an emotional relationship with you – when you belong so will they.

  • Inspire

Offer positive stories of your own or others’ success. Be clear and communicate the values and mission of the company, thus building inspiration and bringing alignment of your employees’ values to the company as a whole. When people are in concordance with the values of the company, they will automatically gain a greater sense of commitment and become more intrinsically motivated to reach the strategic outcomes of the company.

  • Reward efforts not outcomes

This approach can be challenging in the workplace as success is driven by outputs. However, taking a mastery over performance stance when looking at employee productivity can help to develop a greater sense of competence. In turn, building employees to feel a sense of mastery before the task is even completed. This will increase autonomous motivation as the task is being performed for the joy of it rather than the perceived consequences of delivery.

  • Intellectually Stimulate

Despite what you may believe, people like challenges. Everyone enjoys a walk in the park, but the greater desire to learn and master new skills will eventually outweigh ease. Being a manager comes with a great responsibility to mediate job demands to get the “sweet spot” for your staff. This is an ongoing process; however, if there is the opportunity for employees to learn, develop and master new skills, they will not only satisfy their need for competence, but will feel a greater sense of commitment to the future of the job.

  • Support Collective Enthusiasm

There are two main areas which affect an employee’s sense of job satisfaction – job demands and job resources. As the manager, however, there can be little flexibility in mitigating the job demands, and therefore a shift in perceived job resources can be a vital role to play for your employees. It is basic physics – resources need to outweigh demands in order for success to be enabled. When employees feel supported, individually as well as part of a team, their psychological resources for success increase which reduces the impact of job demands on energy and well-being.

In Closing

People spend at least 33% of the week at work, doing what they were hired to do. If employees are demotivated this can become a draining exercise, for the individual, the team and company. While motivation in the grander sense is important, when we begin to unpack it, we see that having autonomous, intrinsic motivation serves us greater than that of controlled, extrinsic motivation. Therefore, if improved, sustainable motivation is needed in your team, autonomous motivation is highly necessary and can be developed.

The five approaches offered above provide a springboard to start driving success and satisfaction in your team. Where will you start?


Is there a dark side to happiness? Part 2

Is there a dark side to happiness? Part 2

Last month we discussed the first question regarding whether there is a dark side to happiness. We specifically spoke about whether there is a wrong quantity of happiness. The secret lies in moderation – everything in a balanced quantity. Excessive extreme happiness swings are unhealthy for us and may even come at a cost.

This week we continue with questions 2 to 4 on the dark side of happiness.

Question 2: Is there an inappropriate time for happiness?

Our emotions are phenomenal as they prepare us to attain goals and expand our thinking and equally guard us from dangerous situations. Emotions are our internal guiding compass and if we tune into them we can obtain important guidance about situations and people. However, we try to regulate our emotions through consciously supressing unwanted feelings. We must understand the pros and cons every emotional state brings. For example, experiencing positive emotions makes us feel safe and we might be less persuasive in negotiations. Likewise, it’s almost impossible to be fair, empathetic and open-minded towards others when in an angry state.

Happiness is like humour, a delicate balance for when it’s appropriate to be happy and when not. Happiness is also in the eye of the beholder.

Question 3: Is there an incorrect way to develop happiness?

This question is quite intriguing. You will have seen many social media posts and articles that urge us to develop our level of happiness because it leads to positivity and fulfilment. We are constantly being encouraged to work on and increase our happiness level. But should we actively be striving for this? I get a sense that we are commoditising happiness as if it is a competency that with practice and continual usage we will improve on. If we do precisely that, then we are indeed going about it the wrong way. The reason is that we are treating happiness as a goal that needs to be attained. We set standards and benchmarks that determine how happy we are. We put more and more in and the opposite happens; we become more and more disappointed and unhappier. Research findings show that an active pursuit to attain happiness has resulted in greater social disconnect and feelings of loneliness. Again, the answer to this conundrum lies in our emotions. When we pursue happiness, we try to supress or avoid negative emotions which fuels more unhappiness. Our aim is to bring in more awareness, mindfulness and acceptance to our emotions. Going inward and being observers of our emotional, physical and cognitive mind. Being fluid and allowing ourselves to be human beings not controlled machines.

Question 4: Are there wrong types of happiness?

Are things black or white; right or wrong. This mindset demonstrates a level of scarcity and fixedness. Happiness is many things, but not that. Happiness has multiple flavours, textures and colours. What determines if something is right or wrong is our value system. The same can be said about happiness from a cultural aspect. What one culture deems virtuous, another does not. As an example, Asian countries value socially engaged emotions such as harmony, friendliness and kindness. In contrast, the European countries value pride and personal achievement. We need to be aware through whose lens we are looking, and also need to be tolerant and respectful that we all wear different lenses. There is no wrong happiness; but what is valued and resonates for you.

So, we need to tread carefully and not make happiness the benchmark for psychological and emotional well-being. We need to become aware that the power lies in balancing the positive with the negative in a harmonious way. Finding what the right dose is for each of us, the dose that makes us flourish and be our best possible self.


Gruber, J., Mauss, I., & Tamir, M. (2011). A Dark Side of Happiness? How, When, and Why Happiness Is Not Always Good. Perspectives on Psychological Science Volume: 6 issue: 3, 222-233.

Happiness at work. Does it matter?

Happiness at work. Does it matter?

The main goal for many companies is to be profitable and sustainable, and at a push to promote well-being and employee performance. Old business models that exclude employee well-being and happiness are fast becoming outdated and unattractive for stakeholders. Happiness in the workplace is becoming a more popular topic these days and companies can decide when and how they are going to incorporate human well-being into their business strategy. It’s important to remember that the early adopters (Google, Zappers, Virgin and Facebook) have by no means reduced their market share or profitability by incorporating the concept of happiness in the workplace. In fact, it’s quite the opposite!

Humans live for, on average, 700,000 hours and during that time we spend 56,000 hours at work (± 30 years). Millennials, the new work generation born between 2000and 2015, mainly want to be happy at, in and during work. Other generations may not agree with this outlook; however, because Millennials are going to be influencing the work environment for the next 30 to 50 years, it means that we are going to have to embrace and be curious about their outlook on life and work.

What could potentially make us sceptical about the whole happiness concept is that we don’t necessarily understand what it means, how to attain it, maintain it and even if it’s genuinely relevant to business principles. The fact that there are several definitions of happiness doesn’t help the cause. The same argument can be made for work engagement. Various definitions and concepts exist that elaborate what drives engagement. While we are trying to solve the definition challenge, companies are looking for engaged and happy employees, but aren’t sure what or how that looks like.

A Google search in September 2015 of the phrase “happiness at work” came up with 261 million web pages. That shows that the topic is of great interest and that there are obviously many unhappy employees. Furthermore, the World Health Organisation has predicted that by 2020 depression will be the second highest cause of work absenteeism. That’s only three years down the line!

With up to a quarter of employees suffering from stress because of their work, it is obvious that our current work-life model is heading in an undesirable direction. The scientific field of Positive Psychology offers answers to our downward unhappiness spiral. The principle of Positive Psychology is that it focuses on what works well and what we can do to improve our happiness level with the purpose of enabling individuals, groups and institutions to thrive and operate at an optimal level. The goal of Positive Psychology is to look and explore the other side of the coin.

The term “Positive Psychology” is often interpreted with scepticism and associated with a new spiritual philosophy that is promoted through endless self-help tips and quick fixes. Exploring its roots, one can see that it is a strand of the traditional psychology which ensures that it undergoes the same amount of scientific rigour and evidence-based testing for it to be associated to psychology. Psychology’s primary mission is to improve people’s quality of life and to cure mental illnesses. Positive Psychology focuses strongly on improving people’s quality of life.

Let’s explore why happiness in the workplace matters and for whose benefit. Positive Organisation Behaviour has five components:

Self-efficacy          Believing in one’s own abilities results in making positive choices, being motivated, trying harder                                      through persistence, thinking positively and being resistant to stress.

Hope                        A motivational state that through willpower and determination achieves objectives and goals.

Optimism              A mindset perspective wherein people trust that everything happens for a positive and good                                               reason.

Happiness             Individual well-being or happiness shows that happy people are more satisfied with their work.

Emotional             Is extremely useful at work as it enables one to recognise, manage and regulate one’s own             Intelligence          emotions and those of others.

These components are desirable in all employees and even more so during times of organisational change and transformation. The negative components can spiral very fast and companies may miss the fact that there are “sick” characteristics that hinder change, growth, performance and productivity which limit its ability to achieve its desired business objectives. Meta-analysis and studies conducted over the past ten years demonstrate that happy employees and positive organisational behaviour contribute between 13% and 25% of the organisation’s bottom line.

Combining positive happy workers with positive organisational behaviour has a substantial impact on both the worker as well as the organisation’s performance and business results. These results have a far wider and deeper reach than material resources, state of the art systems or business models.


Moccia, S. (2016). Happiness At Work. Psychologist Papers, Vol. 37(2), 143-151.

Is there a dark side to happiness? Part 1

Is there a dark side to happiness? Part 1

As humans, we are instinctively drawn to the positive. We tend to move towards positive situations, people and life-giving energy. This is referred to as the heliotropic effect. Positive energy allows us to process information more accurately which leads to an improved recall process. We learn and grow faster in positive environments, we perform at our best and we are much kinder to others and ourselves. So, this positive heliotropic effect should naturally be good for us. Likewise, pursuing happiness has scientifically demonstrated that it allows us to flourish, perform at our optimal, increase our well-being, broaden our attention span and become more goal orientated. But can too much of a good thing be bad for us? And what is too much?

Researcher June Gruber (2011) explored the concept of a dysfunctional dark side to happiness. At its minimum level, happiness includes life satisfaction experiencing more positive than negative emotions and moods, combining the emotional with the cognitive well-being. The automatic answer appears to be no. The questions Gruber asked are relevant to understanding the dark side of happiness:

Question 1: Is there a wrong quantity of happiness?

The first question is interesting as it questions whether  too much of a good thing is bad for us. Can too many positive emotions be maladaptive? We know that too much exercising can lead to physical injuries, too much working results in stress and possibly burnout, too much ruminating causes procrastination, decision-paralysis and exercise dieting results in bodily–organ–systems damage.

The same applies to happiness. An excessive level of a psychological state, negative or positive, is believed to be unhealthy and may lead to maladaptive behaviour and thoughts. The secret lies in moderation – everything in a balanced quantity. Excessive extreme happiness swings are unhealthy for us and may even come at a cost.

  • Decline in creativity;
  • Increase in riskier behaviours such as alcohol or drug consumption, binge eating and drinking, and promiscuous sexual activities;
  • Ignoring warning signs of threats and danger to our well-being;
  • The inability to feel or allow negative emotions.

Even people who have developed and grown their happiness levels experience negative emotions and feelings. They equally have bad days, disappointments and low moods. However, they manage them with a curious, open mind and don’t aim to deny or suppress those emotions; using a balanced approach.

We need to tread carefully and not make happiness the benchmark for people’s psychological and emotional well-being. Learning that the wisdom lies in balancing the positive with the negative in a harmonious way. Finding what the right dose is for each of us, the dose that makes us flourish and be our best possible self.

Next week, we’ll continue exploring the answers to questions 2 to 4 on this topic.

Training your brain for happiness

Training your brain for happiness

Happiness is a concept, a feeling and an inner state that we wish for others and for ourselves. When parents are asked what they’d like for their kids, the answer is always “For them to be happy with their life”. When we write cards for birthdays or other special occasions such as weddings, we bestow happiness on the person or couple.

Happiness is an exceptionally important ingredient in our life, and often we don’t take it seriously. How many times have you said “Just be Happy” without consciously registering what that involves?

Every human being wants to be happy – it’s something we all share; a golden thread that runs through our collective lives which connects us. For some, it is more conscious than for others, and can even be an elusive idea, another fallacy, or even a trend.

Positive Psychology, the study of human well-being and flourishing, has helped to take this topic and transpose it into a tangible, robust science that is empirical, measurable, noticeable, repetitive and valid. The words well-being and happiness are often seen as one and the same concepts even if they are not, but for the sake of this article we’ll turn a blind eye.

For a moment let’s consider the relationship between Neuroscience and Positive Psychology. Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system and brain activities on a cellular and molecular level. We can’t physically see the brain working during the day, except if we were wired to a brain image scanner. However, we can feel how our brain’s state impacts on our thoughts, actions and behaviour. Brain imaging has given us the opportunity to observe the internal structure of the brain, and to see what sections in the brain are activated through activities or emotions. This technological advancement has helped us to understand where happiness is located in the brain.

The neuroscience behind happiness


It’s incredible to think that true happiness has an actual place in the brain, and by identifying the brain-happiness area, experiments have been conducted that determine what neuro-pathways stimulate and lead to increased happiness.

When people are in a state of happiness, their prefrontal cortex (located in the forehead and responsible for allowing us to think, make decisions, focus, and attain goals) is noticeably more active. Another commonly-used name for the prefrontal cortex is the Executive brain which takes up a huge amount of energy. Besides allowing us to think, it has another important function of regulating our emotions and assisting us to recover from negative thoughts and emotions. If we learn to train our brain, we can indirectly influence our psychological and emotional well-being, also known as our level of happiness.

There are a few ways to train your brain to be happy, without the use of chemical substances.

Meditation – ten minutes of quietening the mind stimulates the prefrontal cortex and provides feelings of joy, calmness, serenity and well-being. These are ten powerful minutes in which you can empty the thoughts from your head.

Loving kindness meditation (LKM) – is a meditation where you intentionally send love, kindness, protection and well-being to your loved ones as well as to yourself. It’s a visual image where you consciously see the loved one in-front of you and then send them abundant love. It sounds strange, but if we’re honest, we do this naturally to the people we care about and love.

Gratitude awareness – taking a couple of minutes to become aware of who and what we are grateful for in the day. This can be gratitude for people, situations or events, and observing the beauty of our surroundings, relationships and life. You can have fun here and write this down in a journal, take a snapshot of it, draw it, sing it, dance it or just think it.

Strengths mindfulness – reflecting over the day and listing strengths that you applied that day. Again, it’s a conscious decision to focus on what inner strengths you used during the day in certain situations without being mindless. This can be varied from being patient and kind to an infuriated colleague, to using humour or empathy in a tough situation.

The benefit of training your brain to be happier leads to a more productive and focused mind as well as becoming happier. It’s in your control and your choice to pursue happiness in your life. Contact us for more information about crafting your happiness.