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Money Isn’t the Key Motivator

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman explains why employees will only be driven by having some sense of meaning in what they do. One of the primary jobs of a leader is to direct attention. Leaders must first focus their own attention, and, just as important, the attention of their team. When it comes to motivating a team or the workforce in general, we need to ask: Where are leaders directing attention? Are they guiding people toward what will inspire them to stay engaged? Experts on motivation tell us drive depends on people having some sense of meaning in what they do. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review noted, “You cannot spreadsheet your way to passion.” The article argues that leaders are more effective when they connect people to a deeper sense of meaning in order to unite them around a strategy or goal.

In Long-Term Purpose, Short-Term Goals, I wrote about Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)—a way many organizations set goals and manage progress. I argued that while on paper, OKRs look like they have nothing to do with purpose. But, upon closer look, the goal-setting process is filled with opportunities to leverage purpose. This starts with directing attention. Even though an organization may have a purpose statement, it's irrelevant if all a leader calls an employee’s attention to is the bottom line. According to Blind, which anonymously surveys technologists, at the end of 2020 roughly 80% of employees at top technology firms reported feeling demotivated at work and 71% were suffering from burnout. While these numbers point to a crisis of employee motivation, what’s important to note is that the actual number of demotivated employees varies from company to company, depending entirely on what the organization is doing.

The HBR article cites the SaaS firm Blackbaud as an example of a company leveraging something meaningful to motivate their employees. When Mike Gianoni took over as CEO of Blackbaud, he changed the way the company conducted town halls. Instead of fixating on financial results, he focused on the impact the organization was having on their actual customers. Six months later, Blackbaud saw an increase in innovation, employee engagement, market share and revenue—suggesting that purpose is a powerful driver of success. Directing attention in this way is something organizations like Hilton, the multinational hospitality company, have been doing for years. Hilton has a well-defined purpose centered around delivering great experiences for customers and having a positive impact in the communities they serve.

“To me, leadership is about establishing the vision of the future, [along with] great strategy, and building a great culture that is driven by a purpose that motivates people to move forward together,” Chris Nassetta, Hilton’s president and CEO, told Glassdoor. “Where are we going as a company? It has to be something that people can touch and feel that inspires and motivates them and does so at all levels of the company…”Hilton’s focuses employees on the impact their work is having on not only the bottom line, but on actual human beings. Communications zero in on how each individual plays a role in fulfilling the company’s mission: "To fill the earth with the light and warmth of hospitality."

Who benefits when a leader directs employee’s attention towards profit? The most likely to care are employees who own stock or who have some other tangible stake in the company’s financial performance. To get everyone on board with meeting a goal, numbers aren’t always enough. People need to know their work is contributing to more than the bottom line. They need to feel a shared purpose to give their best efforts.

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