The Four Elements of Employee Motivation

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Feb 7, 2022

For too long, organizations have prioritized a company-first — rather than employee-first — model to engage employees, putting a company’s purpose before employee goals. 

In addition to health risks, economic insecurity, and other ongoing stresses related to Covid, organizations placing their needs before their employees’ has been a leading contributor to the Great Resignation. As the pandemic continues, people are realizing that they don’t have to remain with companies that don’t align with their values, whether it’s workplace flexibility or a lack of proper compensation. 

In November alone, 4.5 million Americans left their jobs to reevaluate their lives and pursue careers that made them happier. In an era when only 39% of U.S. employees feel engaged at work, it’s crucial for companies to actively facilitate connection among colleagues and improve critical areas like diversity, inclusion, and mental health to foster greater collaboration in the workplace. 

However, the difficulty of motivating employee behavior can hold these initiatives back. To combat this and drive positive changes in employee behavior, opinions and engagement, organizations need to prioritize an employee-first model by applying behavioral science principles to HR initiatives and programs. Implementing science-based approaches that truly motivate people will boost the success of HR initiatives, help workers reach their full potential at work, and improve employee retention. 

The People Activation Model

If you’ve ever failed to follow through on a New Year’s resolution, then you’ve fallen into what behavioral economists call the intention-action gap: Your actions don’t line up with your stated actions and goals. Overcoming this gap is a big part of motivating positive employee behaviors in a workplace context — and behavioral science can help. 

The People Activation Model was designed with such science in mind. It tells us that meaningful action only happens when four specific components converge at the same time: engagement, nudge, ease, and connection. 

Engagement is delivering a personalized “why” behind every action for each employee; nudges are bite-sized, relevant communications, delivered at the right time; ease makes participation and the experience as frictionless as possible; and connection instills a strong sense of “we” in every employee. 

When any one of these four elements are missing, a behavior will not occur. For example, if a behavior is difficult to do — that is, ease is missing — then it likely won’t happen, even if an employee receives a timely nudge and is highly motivated to perform the behavior. 

Analyzing your existing HR programs with the People Activation Model in mind can help you understand where they may be falling short in terms of changing your employees’ behaviors. For instance, imagine your company offers a mental health and wellness app to employees for free, but relatively few have signed up. The model suggests a few possible reasons:

  • Engagement. Are the content and the services offered through the app personalized and relevant to employees’ needs? Cookie-cutter content can sap employees’ motivation to participate in an HR initiative.
  • Nudge. Do employees receive timely reminders to sign up? If nudges come at the wrong time or via the wrong channel, they may not be very effective at driving the desired employee behaviors.
  • Ease. If the sign-up process is long and complicated, or if the app is difficult to use, these ease factors could be keeping enrollment low.
  • Connection. Is the app connecting everyone involved in the program? If not, rethinking the app and sign-up process to facilitate easy communication among colleagues can improve connection and boost morale.

Improving HR Effectiveness

To change employee behavior at scale, you have to be extremely efficient with the time and resources you have — and that means taking a strategic approach to designing your HR initiatives.

By defining the behavior you want employees to achieve, identifying the current barriers, designing solutions to address the behavior and testing them, HR can help close the intention-action gap. For example, if you determine that ineffective nudges may be a reason for low enrollment in your wellness app, look into solutions that will let you send personalized, timely reminders prompting employees to sign up — and then track the impact of those solutions on actual enrollment rates.

Bear in mind that simplicity and motivation are important tools to drive change. Keeping a task simple and streamlined often makes it easier to do, improving ease. And using motivation, like giving an employee a good reason to complete a task, will help HR teams boost engagement. 

Ultimately, creating engaging HR programs and initiatives can be challenging, especially when you’re used to using traditional methods. But traditional methods being used in the new normal are leading to burnout at levels we’ve never seen before. By optimizing your HR programs in a more human-centric way, you give employees the tools they need to reach their full potential at work, boosting engagement and fostering human connection in the workplace — and ultimately boosting retention.