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  • Kate Turner

How has the role of motivation changed in the workplace?

Motivation has always been important, but we’ve paid little attention to it, until recently. Traditionally, managers looked at success and outcomes, and focussed on defining goals, objectives, or a business plan. The belief was that if I have a goal or plan that will lead to a successful outcome. 

This meant we spent the 1990s writing those business plans, developing SMART objectives and aligning our teams to goals – often known as the ‘golden thread’. Appraisal discussion, however, did not pick up on other aspects of performance such as motivation. In fact, motivation was often seen as an outcome of successful performance, rather than important contributor to it! 

Once businesses became more used to sharing objectives, the next focus became how these ‘outcomes’ were achieved, and this meant uncovering the skills, behaviours, experience, and knowledge that somebody had or that the organisation needed. And this change in focus gave rise to competency frameworks, training needs analysis, behavioural psychometric profiles; with the assumption that if people can understand themselves better, then that's the ingredient for success. 

The Appraisal discussion evolved so that it focused both on ‘what outcomes’ were being sought and ‘how are you going to achieve it’. Individuals were judged, appraised and assessed on those two aspects.


But there was a crucial missing ingredient - a focus on motivation. Over the years, crude methods have been used to motivate workers such as bonus and reward schemes, company cars etc. But these ‘rewards’ are extrinsic, and don’t speak to what truly motivates an individual – the intrinsic motivators. We only need to look at Employee Engagement over the last 20 years to realise how stubbornly static those numbers have remained. A new approach was needed. 

How did the Covid Pandemic affect our mindset towards motivation? 

Living through the Covid pandemic and the subsequent cost of living crisis, people are waking up to what's really important to them in their life and specifically what they value about their work. There's been a realisation that it’s not just about achieving the outcomes and developing skills. There's much more to it and that’s why we saw the ‘great resignation’ happening post-COVID. 

Great, but what needs to happen now? 

We need to support people in building a language around motivation so that they can characterise it for themselves. What's important to me? What is it that gets me out of bed in the morning? What is it that fires me up, gets me in the flow? What makes me think I can deliver more than just what's being asked of me? What helps me lean into the difficult conversations, think for myself, share and collaborate much more? Using a language to enable someone to articulate the answers to these questions will highlight what really drives us, whether it be making a difference, learning, having stability or building collaborative networks. Whatever it might be, we're all different. When we own what motivates us, we're driven to succeed, we buy in, we engage with the teams that we're working with - and then we engage with our business plans and the strategy of the organisation that we're working for. It’s a bottom-up approach that’s needed, rather than the traditional ‘top-down’ one. 

Why is the need to understand motivation so urgent? 

People are still exhausted and burning out. They're not thriving. For a lot of people, they're so worn down by not having their motivators met, not even having their basic needs met in some areas, that they're needing to dig deep and ‘push through’. And that's not sustainable in the long term. People are questioning whether it’s worth it. And even those who are staying in the workplace, are not delivering as much as they could, because they're worn out. 

The crucial question in 2023 and beyond is how can we make sure that we're working and living such that people are getting what they need and want from work and from life so that they can thrive?

Written by Kate Turner – Founder & Director of Motivational Leadership in collaboration with Blue Gnu Consulting. October 2023.


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