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Hardly a week goes by without a trade magazine publishing a theory on motivation. And every year, these magazines provide an in-depth investigation into the factors that drive us to work.

In addition, we have daily surveys on platforms like LinkedIn that ask us the critical question: "What motivates you at work?".

Of course, this question has variations, such as "What gets you up in the morning?" or "What's the most important aspect of your job?".

All of these questions share a common theme: motivating factors.

However, none of these surveys are particularly interesting. They lack scientific, social, or managerial significance. In most cases, the results are contradictory from one survey to another.

For instance, four surveys have been conducted in the last ten years:

  • In 2014, the main sources of motivation were a positive work environment at 42%, recognition at 42%, and autonomy at 34% 1
  • In 2017, motivation (in a European context) was influenced by salary at 42%, work-life balance at 22%, and relationships with colleagues at 21% 2
  • In 2019, social life at 42%, increased efficiency at work at 40%, and being part of a team at 39% were identified as motivating factors 3
  • And in 2020 (before the CoVid crisis), the key motivating factors were: salary at 60%, job satisfaction at 37%, and recognition of the value of work at 30% 4

What can we deduce from these results? Not much. It's impossible to draw any conclusions. None of these findings can be applied because they treat all motivating factors as having equal value and addressing the same needs.

However, it is possible to differentiate between our wants and needs, desires and necessities.

Even though work enjoyment and relationships with colleagues play a significant role in an employee's motivation level, their salary remains the primary reason for working. Even nurses and teachers have advocated for a reassessment of their salaries. Those believed to be so dedicated that they could work for low wages also protested against the lack of recognition for their efforts.

Work is an activity that comes with constraints. Why should we accept these constraints without fair compensation? And this initial give-and-take is inherently tied to the wage.

Therefore, these surveys are entertaining and can help managers gauge the satisfaction levels of their teams. However, they make two mistakes:

  1. Causal attribution
  2. Sources of motivation

Causal attribution of motivation

As an employee responding to a survey of this type, I'll look for explanations congruent with my motivation linked to my social identity and ego. So, chances are I'm not being totally rational in my response but rather influenced by the desire to justify my behavior... a posteriori!

For the observer, what's important is the behavior, not the situation: he'll compare the actor with other people, perhaps himself; he'll, therefore, be led to make internal attributions. On the other hand, the actor evaluates his behavior in relation to his other behaviors: what's different, then, is the situation, which becomes more important in his eyes. Ultimately, behavior perceived by the observer as a consequence of the actor's intention will be considered by the same actor as a response to the situation. 5

It is useful to remind the participant to respond rationally and rationally to avoid this bias. Simply reminding them that they may be subject to bias positively influences their thinking.

Sources of motivation

We are not all motivated to work for the same reasons. Additionally, we can each have multiple reasons for working.

These reasons are based on our own needs and desires, which are influenced by our temperament, age, education, heritage, beliefs, and mental state.

To avoid confusion between needs, necessities, desires, and cravings, it is important to categorize the sources of motivation. These sources can be grouped into four categories:

  • Material necessity
    Many of us work to earn a wage and support ourselves. This is often referred to as "making a living."
  • Social identity
    We require social recognition, and having a job, a profession, or simply being employed contributes to this recognition, sense of belonging, and integration.
  • Professional growth
    Work provides an opportunity for personal development, performance, and mastery. The desire for mastery and, at times, power are significant motivating factors that extend beyond the workplace.
  • Societal impact
    Many workers express a profound desire to give meaning to their activities. They seek a purpose within the company's internal processes or, even more so, a role in building a society that aligns with their own values.

As evident, it is impossible to equate material necessity with societal desire. When these categories are mixed in the same questionnaire, it creates a conscious or subconscious feeling of discomfort, which needs to be resolved through a "lie" to maintain our social identity.

If you create a satisfaction questionnaire to assess the motivation of your teams, I recommend making a clear distinction between these four categories. Doing so will allow everyone to answer honestly without fearing infringing upon moral and sanctimonious values.