Understanding and Leveraging Employee Motivation

Published on June 30, 2022

Feature Insight

  • An employee's opportunity to pursue their values and goals has a significant effect on faculty and staff motivation and engagement. 
  • Each faculty and staff member is motivated to varying degrees by different values.
  • Common internal motivators include greater autonomy, new challenges, and impact.
Feature Insight

As important as compensation and job titles are for attracting, retaining, and rewarding faculty and staff, they are only part of the things that matter when it comes to keeping employees motivated, engaged, and satisfied with their career. Furthermore, opportunities for raises and promotions are limited and often outside of a supervisor’s control, so focusing on other career development strategies may be more effective.

In fact, understanding and leveraging an employee’s motivation can have a tremendous impact on how employees think about their own career development and satisfaction. What do they value in their career? Do they pride themselves on producing results and making significant contributions? Are they interested in learning? Expanding their network? Having more flexibility?  

The Center for Creative Leadership has conducted numerous studies on employee engagement and motivation and found that things that come from within, such as the opportunity to do interesting and challenging work as well as pursue their values and goals, have a significant effect on faculty and staff motivation and engagement.  

Internal motivations are unique

Each faculty and staff member is motivated to varying degrees by different values. Their personality, experiences, and general disposition all contribute to how they define success and what they find motivating. Therefore, it’s important to get to know each faculty and staff member and ask about their interests and motivations. While there are some common internal motivations, how they are deployed should be customized to the individual in order to have the most impact on skills development and career growth.

Common internal motivations 

Greater autonomy. Autonomy refers to how much an individual feels in control and has agency in their work as opposed to being told how, what, when, and where they should do their work. 

To support autonomy:

  • Clarify goals and define success while giving employees space to determine how to achieve their goals. 
  • Delegate tasks and empower employees to make decisions, then offer support through coaching during check-ins. 
  • Offer choice in how the employee’s work is implemented and encourage creativity and innovation in problem solving. Supervisors should offer themselves as a resource, but avoid micromanaging. 
  • When possible, allow the employee choice in determining where, when, and how their work takes place. Review the University’s guidance on Work. With Flexibility. and maximize the freedom for flexible work within the bounds of your college, unit, or department’s approach. 

When supervisors encourage autonomy, faculty and staff will experience greater satisfaction and engagement because the results of their work are perceived as the result of their own abilities, confidence, and competence. 

New challenges. One of the key drivers of employee engagement is the opportunity for interesting and challenging work. Opportunities for new or greater challenges can lead to increased self-efficacy and a sense of accomplishment. 

Offer the opportunity for new challenges by:

  • Assigning stretch projects or goals that support learning. Consider how the assignment aligns with the employee’s current skill level and interests. 
  • Setting important and challenging goals that connect to the University’s mission and the employee’s interests. 
  • Providing support for training and development. It’s not enough for supervisors to provide time away from work to attend trainings and workshops. To truly maximize the benefits of training and development opportunities, managers can show support by talking with their employees about what they learned and how they support their employees in applying what they learned to their work.

The greatest rewards come from overcoming challenges. Offering a challenge is not enough and supervisors should stay connected with their employees with regular check-ins to provide support, remove barriers, and offer their knowledge. 

Impact. Refers to both connecting work to the campus, college, or unit’s strategy and connecting with others. Making these connections can contribute to our sense of purpose and belonging and a belief that we’re contributing to something greater than ourselves.  

Foster connection by:

  • Offering clarity, context, and transparency when decisions are made.     
  • Establishing individual goals that align with the strategic priorities for the campus, college, or unit.
  • Providing clear and regular feedback and coaching. 
  • Encouraging faculty and staff to think about how they can leverage the knowledge from their professional networks to contribute to their work. 

Spend a few minutes discussing these motivators with your direct reports. Ask which of them resonate with them: having more autonomy, tackling new challenges, or seeing the impact of their work? What's most important in the current moment? What do they value in their career? The greater understanding will make your conversations and coaching more meaningful and will help people stay engaged.