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Motivation is a continually developing area of subject knowledge influenced by ongoing research, not least in the field of neuroscience. The subject has been the extensively researched, where many of the significant texts relate to classical theory. These have stood the test of time so far, but they are not necessarily current in terms of showing how the overall understanding of the subject has, and is, evolving.

This resource (Info graphic on Motivation) shows the historical time line of classic theories, but also highlights the more contemporary thinking on the subject.

Since those people working in economic environments are continually looking at the subject of productivity, the more recent published research now covers much wider populations other than white middle class groups. It is not surprising that this topic is given extensive thought and deliberation by Human Resource personnel within organisations in all sectors. Over the last few years motivation has morphed into engagement, where specialist ‘engagement’ officers are endeavouring to increase productivity by setting up engagement programmes that maximise the hours staff spend in their work places.

Their reasons are purely commercial; within other sectors, such as education, the motives are to ensure students maximise their opportunity to learn so that they can reach their full potential. The outcomes are different, but much of the process and thinking sits comfortably in both areas.


What is clear is that there is no one easy answer to the question: “how do you motivate people?” In addition, it becomes ever more self-evident that a particular motivational strategy may work very well for one person but have little value or impact on another. This leads to the second equally valid field of enquiry, which is to establish what are people motivated by, since answering this, helps with the first question.

Over time, the key variables or different motivators have become very clear; even the current research appears to countenance many of the original tested ideas. These are:

  • Financial reward

  • Having status and being recognised

  • Friendship and having a sense of belonging

  • Being in control

  • Freedom to be creative and use self expression

  • Gaining knowledge and expertise

  • Owning a sense of purpose and direction

  • Stability and certainty

  • Being committed to an ultimate purpose

It is the lack of one or more of these factors that are often at the heart of problems that the RESOLVE model and approach is seeking to address.

Financial reward

This isn’t necessarily an approach that managers can take with staff, since there is not always an option of a ‘pay rise’ or bonus. However, the topic is still very important in terms of understanding significant ‘drivers’. Although many people are not necessarily motivated by money, but what the money can buy – such as status, there are those people for whom money is everything: they want the actual money; the ability to spend freely as and when they want; they want privilege that goes with high income; the perks, and to be able to display their trappings of material success. In terms of a strategy, highlighting that in the end the effort will reap ‘rewards’ with a high paying career might prove beneficial.

The issue of financial reward is often as far as many people get when thinking about motivation: in reality, the other drivers are far likely to be the prime energy behind people’s decision to act the way they do.

Having status and being recognised

A cursory glance at the marketing budget of any medium or large sized corporate body will immediately indicate the importance of the brand and brand management. This applies both to individuals as well as organisation. Many individuals have a need for their work to acknowledged, praised and admired; they need to have the respect of their peers, competitors and others with whom they associate.

This group of people like to be rewarded by having a title, being given a special privilege or mark of achievement such as rewards or ‘medals’. Above all they like to be publically acknowledged and thrive on having an enhanced visibility, particularly at public events and ceremonies. Promotion is clearly motivating for them because of the recognition it brings.

‘I cannot get a man to die for money, but I can get him to die for a medal’. Napoleon

At one level within most work sectors this is quite an easy motivator to satisfy since “stars and points” are metaphorically easy to address as good news stories in meeting, newsletters, and social media posts as part of behavioural reward process. Less easy is the issue of allocating status, such as team leader, head of department unless of course it is merited through the recruitment process. However, the important issue is to reward these individuals little and often: it is what they thrive upon. They prefer to have recognition on a regular basis, rather than waiting until the annual appraisal report.

Finally, small constant acts of one to one recognition and praise, simply acknowledging them are for who they are and what they have done, will keep these individuals on track.

Friendship and having a sense of belonging

As human beings, we have an emotional need to be an accepted member of a group, where the group situation could be within our family, our friends, people we work with, or a sports team. It stems from an ‘inherent’ desire we have to belong and be an important part of something greater than ourselves. Maslow suggested that the need to belong was a major source of human motivation; his hierarchy of needs theory implies the need for relationships is greater than simplify having acquaintances or being familiar with others. This need to belong is the need to give, and receive attention to, and from others.

The work of Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary took a similar line; their research suggested that all human beings need a certain minimum quantity of regular, satisfying social interactions.

The flip side of this, which is very pertinent within a Covid rich environment, is the inability to meet this need, which can result in loneliness and mental distress.

For some, the need to belong is very strong and is a major motivator. The opportunity with this category of people is to reward them by involving them as much as possible in aspects of the work: ask their opinion, offer them support, let them support others, get to know them at social activities and events so that you can really get to know people, so they can feel valued and ‘part of something’ and share in some sort of cultural identity.

Being in control

A major driver for some people is to be in the position where they can influence, dominate, make decisions, have significant amounts of responsibility: in effect to have power and to be in control of people, processes, events and how things are done in order to achieve outcomes. For this group, simply being just one of a group of people is a major source of dissatisfaction.

Inevitably, people with this driver tend to gravitate towards progress up the management ladder and seek careers where there is a hierarchical structure. Being so visible, it is not surprising that some of their tangible characteristics include drive, self-confidence and having a sense of vision about what needs to done to get the work completed.

In terms of a motivational strategy, allocating responsibility is highly motivating, whether this is in a formal or informal setting. In addition to hierarchical positions in an organisation, there are ample opportunities to meet this in social clubs, sports activities, social events that need organising, and where someone can take ownership and influence the outcome. This group of people represent an open door when looking for opportunities to ‘delegate’. So, look for opportunities, they will be receptive to the notion of personal development via coaching and mentoring to help them become better equipped to lead and manage others.

Freedom to be creative and use self expression

Walk into any artistic or creative environment, whether part of a professional body such as an architecture, or purely within the artistic environment, and you will find those for whom the ability to design and create is more than just a job, it is where their energy lies. For this group of people, their strongest motivation comes from a need to be creative, to innovate and to take the accolade for their work. They are often the risk takers, those who are willing to break the mould, to come up with new ideas, new and different processes, to create something that wasn’t there before. They thrive on challenges and problems.

The value that this group brings is their resilience, they will frequently be very optimistic, they have a forward thinking, growth mindset, and they can preserve when things don’t go well. Being asked to get involved in any creative problem solving process such as mind mapping, works well as a motivational strategy. They will engage in any solution focus question, or specific structured problem solving techniques. Ensure you give these individuals credit for the new and original thinking or the solutions they have come up with. However, bear in mind, especially within an educational setting, that being given repetitive routine work represents a challenge and can lead to them being demotivated.

Gaining knowledge and expertise

Sir Francis Bacon was the first person attributed to the phrase “Knowledge is Power”, which is applicable to a particular group of people who have a need for expertise and mastery of a subject. These people thrive on knowing their subject inside out, and to the challenge of becoming an expert or specialist at what they do so that they become masterful and fully competent within their chosen area. They will actively look to be able to demonstrate this level of skill or expertise in their specialised field. Consequently, training, learning and development opportunities are highly motivating for them and they will seek out opportunities to further their knowledge. In today’s digital environment, they will frequently be found on line researching their subject.

Any approach that supports further learning will be motivational to this group, so analysis of any induction assessment and Personal Development Plans that identify and structure learning opportunities will be well received. Regular mentoring and coaching with progress reviews will help keep them on track; being given the opportunity to work with others, as in providing peer to peer support, will further their desire to master a subject.

Owning a sense of purpose and direction

In any form of organisation whether it be commercial, public services, not for profit or educational, processes and procedures bring a sense of purpose and structure. There are always those that sit outside of accepted norms who are much more at home in any form of entrepreneurial environment. This group seeks freedom or autonomy through being independent and able to make their own decisions.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”

In many respects reward strategies are quite straight forward with this group. Set them clear objectives and then allow them the freedom and space to decide how to achieve them. Use well framed open questions to encourage them to think for themselves, without any form of micro-management. Ensure they understand the bigger picture, so they understand their part in helping create the end solution – this is a key part of their motivation. Letting go is very important with this group, they will want to plan their own time, plot out their own best course of action and are most effective in getting things done on time, providing they are free from the interference of others.

When working with young adults in an educational environment, where they have so much to learn, they can become stressed by the inability to make their own decision: they will become de-motivated by not having the authority to act in the way they see fit. Situations like this require clear discussions about boundary management. In addition, since they generally dislike bureaucracy and box ticking approaches, they have to learn to adapt to different working environment. Team sports can be a challenge since they prefer to work best on their own; but they frequently bring a freshness of ideas to established thinking and approaches.

Stability and certainty

We live in a world of constant change, which for some represents the natural order of things but to others this is a daily challenge. This group is motivated by security – one of the most powerful of all human needs – and long-term stability. Safety of tenure is of prime consideration, along with assurance and re-assurance. In the world of work, they seek long term job security, proven pension arrangements, and clearly explicit conditions of employment. They work best in a predictable and clearly defined work environment, where the task is unambiguous and requires steadfast and robust perseverance. Although not natural risk takers, they will take the action required – often bold in nature – provided they are sure their detailed calculations show the outcome is pretty certain.

The motivational strategies that best serve this group are clear and constant communication; this is their life blood and they need to know what lies ahead so they can plan for it. Ensure that they have access to regular information updates that follow a systematic and logical approach. Work routines and tasks need to be precise with few sudden surprises. Above all make sure you explain very clearly, in a written form, what you expect from them.

Being committed to an ultimate purpose

Perhaps our most important long term driver is what we all aspire to be. In reality, day to day challenges may thwart or hinder what our hearts desire. However, for one group of people, their life’s calling is all encompassing; it is what drives every aspect of their world. For this group, whatever they do has to have meaning. The work they undertake has to have value in its own right, so they will want to do things that are important to them – money, status, and recognition are secondary attributes.

They will be driven by work that they see as making a difference; improvements in health, wellbeing, quality of life, supporting a cause or making things better than they are now. This is what drives many people within education and other public services

Unsurprisingly, this group of people are very active, have significant levels of energy and drive, and are very frustrated working within a paper driven, bureaucratic environment. They need to see and experience how their efforts are producing tangible results.

In terms of motivating this group, ensure they are clear about what it is they are working towards – how clear are they about their purpose: it is not a given that they will know. Allow them to be involved in developmental projects where progress is tangible, doing day to day repetitive tasks is very demotivating to this group. Being involved in regular feedback loops is important to them; they need to know how they are doing, so ensure information on outcomes and outputs is regularly available.

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