Stop Trying to Motivate Your Employees – and What To Try Instead

Engage to motivate

“How can I motivate my employees to ________? (work harder, be safer, be healthier, participate, etc.)? is a futile question. Research has shown consistently that one person cannot force another person to change. However, cultivating a thriving workplace culture will foster intrinsic motivation, support employee wellbeing, help employees successfully adapt to change, and will also reveal the valuable connection between corporate culture and success. Instead of a host of gimmicks to entice employees, create the conditions in which they can find their own motivation – and then help them be the authors of their own change journey.1 Here’s how:

1. Begin With a Strong Foundation: a Thriving Workplace Culture.
I use these 14 characteristics to determine whether a workplace is thriving:

  1. The executive leadership team is truly cohesive.
  2. The mission, vision and values are clearly articulated and every employee knows how she/he fits within them.
  3. Employees are empowered and enabled to leverage their strengths.
  4. Leaders and the work climate provide employees with autonomous support.
  5. Clear, timely and meaningful communication is provided for employees, and employees share feedback and ideas that are actually used.
  6. Clear, timely and meaningful feedback is provided for employees in the spirit of ongoing growth and development.
  7. The climate fosters innovation, creativity and meaningful work.
  8. Leaders truly value employees – and employees feel valued.
  9. Employees are encouraged and supported to be authentic and be themselves
  10. People within the organization respect, support and care about one another as people, not just as employees there to complete certain job tasks.
  11. Accountability is embraced; the rules are clear and apply to everyone.
  12. Employees are provided the tools and resources they need to work safely and productively.
  13. Resources, programs, policies and the environment support employees’ ability to thrive in all areas of wellbeing.
  14. Employees are happy and proud to work there!

First assess how well your organization is doing in these areas. Without a strong foundation, it will be impossible to create the conditions for sustainable change.

The only way to have employees act like creative, thinking, responsible, autonomous adults is to treat them like that is exactly what they are!

~ Jon Robison

2. Embrace and Support Change in the Workplace
How does your organization view change? Is it embraced or dreaded? Moving away from a control-oriented approach to change may seem counterintuitive, yet we all know that human beings don’t like to be controlled. These critical factors will help foster intrinsic motivation, engagement, and help employees better face adaptive challenges at the workplace:

  • Autonomy: The ability for employees to think and do for themselves.
  • Mastery: The ability for employees to take advantage of opportunities to learn and grow, and become highly skilled.
  • Purpose: The ability of employees to feel their work is meaningful and understand their connection to a greater purpose and vision.

Online clothing and shoe retailer Zappos is a great example of a company that embraces the importance of these concepts. Because Zappos understands that failing to adapt to change can be devastating, employees are encouraged to challenge the status quo. In addition, Zappos supports and recognizes employees for bringing forward new ideas (autonomy). They provide employees with constant opportunities for growth and development (mastery), and leaders ensure that all employees have clarity about the company’s culture and vision (purpose).2

Creating these conditions has translated into great success for Zappos. Just 10 years after it began, the company was sold to Amazon for an estimated $1.2 billion. It is still known today for providing exceptional customer service and building customer loyalty, while consistently appearing in Fortune magazine’s  “100 Best Companies to Work For” list.

3. Support “Better Thinking” and Personal Growth
It’s human nature to fall back on deeply rooted habits, so trying to “do” differently without first thinking differently is doomed to fail. The nuances of human behavior communicate what we are thinking; therefore, change initiatives only work when we change the way we think. Organizations that recognize the importance of the cognitive process over the behavior itself will be able to foster meaningful change and improvements in the workplace.

As Paul Marciano states in Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, “At the end of the day, successful organizations don’t motivate employees; they engage them. Motivating employees and engaging them are entirely distinct concepts.”

Practical Ways to Support Better Thinking
Unfortunately, instead of engaging employees, organizations often over-value their function or behaviors. Instead, organizations should focus on providing the support and context for employees to recognize when their thinking is, and is not, serving them well. These practical ways to cultivate effective thinking skills at the will help create the conditions for employees to harness intrinsic motivation and successfully adapt to change :

  • Practice Pausing. A person’s first thought usually stems from deeply rooted, habitual thinking. Pausing just a few seconds before acting creates space for greater self-awareness and making more thoughtful choices. If an employee comes to you with a problem, your first thought might be to answer in a way intended to fix it. Pausing in that moment will actually support your employee’s autonomy and mastery. After pausing, you might ask: “What solution would you recommend, based on your experience?” This not only takes the pressure off from you, but it also creates the conditions for your employee to grow and develop clarity of thinking.
  • Recover from Perfectionism. When striving for perfection fails — and it always does  — people get frustrated. Perfectionism is a key characteristic of a fixed mindset, which hinders people from success. Focusing less on an ideal result and instead embracing the journey will build resiliency and a growth mindset, which has been correlated with success! Recovering from perfectionism helps create the conditions for ongoing personal growth and development, and also sends the powerful message to others that they can let go of perfection.

Organizations that focus on creating the conditions in which people can find their own motivation will reap the benefits of employees who are truly engaged at work.

How are you creating the conditions in the workplace for employees to harness their own motivation? Tell us in the comments section below!


1. Deci, E. L. & Flaste, R. (1996). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Books.
2. Hseih, T. (2010). Delivering Happiness: A Path To Profits, Passion and Purpose. New York: Business Plus

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Jon is an accomplished teacher, speaker, writer and consultant. He has spent more than 25 years helping people with weight- and eating-related concerns and advocating for shifting health promotion away from its traditional, biomedical, control-oriented focus. Jon is a national leader in the Health At Every Size™movement and helped implement this unique alternative to weight loss programs at worksites in over 15 cities across the U.S. in the past 2 years.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.