Understanding motivation in the workplace: the scenic route v. the highway

A friend recently asked, “How do I motivate my newly on-boarded team?” I replied, “Find out what they are motivated by.”


Understanding the way people work and more importantly, why they work, offers distinct benefits to managers and employees within an organisation. Understanding  individual differences in motivation allows managers to provide the right mix of guidance and challenge to support their team members’ career goals. The tricky part is how to best measure motivation and use the results to make an impact.

A good place to start is by understanding the basis of motivation in an organisational setting. Motivation can be described as internal and external forces that incorporate how people think and feel, ultimately guiding behaviour (Graham and Weiner, 1996). In organisational psychology research, these internal and external factors are referred to as ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ factors, which include facets like autonomy and pay, respectively (read more about the motivational facets here). Motivation shapes how we behave and more or less, how we see the world.

The scenic route

Let’s consider why someone might be motivated to take the scenic route. For example, Los Angeles, California is famous for a number of reasons, the least glamorous of which is traffic. Instead of sitting on the highway many people opt for a cruise through the quieter hills, even if the distance is a bit longer. For these individuals, the reward of continuous movement and appealing scenery outweighs the alternative option of stop-and-go traffic in a sea of cars. The motivation is driven by a greater sense of freedom and control, the intrinsic facet of autonomy. Autonomy allows people to move with agility, execute creativity and find purpose in their choices.

Others prefer the more direct but less attractive route along the highway because it’s simpler and they would rather save time than take the scenic route. These people might prefer the faster route, which allows for prioritisation of other activities and more time at home. As in an organisational setting, the way in which employees go about their work differs from one person to the next, and motivation helps to explain why. It’s important to understand the motivation that guides these decisions, and then how to provide avenues (or highways) to achieve goals.

The High-flyer and 9-5er

This is not to say that an employee should take the “scenic route” to achieve work goals, but rather, that people approach careers with different motivations. The decisions made along a career path are based on motivation. Leaders can manage their teams more effectively by providing the resources necessary to motivate their employees along their desired career path.

Considering there is a spectrum of ambitions and career goals, it helps to understand what each employee wants and why. On one end, the high-flyer might be motivated by the autonomy to solve problems in ambiguous situations and makes decisions without much guidance. The high-flyer might enjoy the scenic route because it provides an opportunity to go above and beyond, enriching the career journey. Then, there is the 9-5er, a reliable and focused worker who is motivated by the financial security and job security of a stable career. They prefer to make choices within set parameters, take the quickest and most efficient route, work steadily toward goals and enjoy a work-life balance. This type of employee prefers the highway because it is consistent and familiar. Learning how motivation varies between people and among teams allows leaders to provide appropriate resources for their employees to excel.

Turn up the dial

Ultimately, motivation isn’t something you do or do not have; rather, it is something that can be enhanced or diminished at work. Understanding motivation provides insight into how work preferences might contribute toward achieving career goals. The high-flyer may spend extra time learning from intellectually challenging projects, whereas the 9-5er might value the consistency of arriving and leaving at the same time each day. Tools that support managers in understanding their employees’ motivation make a distinct difference in motivating individuals, the team and the organisation as a whole.


High Potential has researched, designed and validated psychometric test of motivation, contributing a suite of psychometrics that serve as resources to understand people at work.


The HP Motivators test is currently in beta, and free to access until 15 November, 2015: Take the test to find out more.

 Contact us here for more information.


Image Credit: Splitshare

Graham, S., & Weiner, B. (1996). Theories and principles of motivation. Handbook of Educational Psychology, 4, 63-84.

Wener, R., Evans, G., & Boately, P. (2005). Commuting stress: Psychophysiological effects of a trip and spillover into the workplace. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, (1924), 112-117.


Skye Lawler

Seven Reasons Training Programs Fail


There is a growing skills gap in nearly all sectors. While there may be many jobseekers, their skills do not often match labour market demand. A poorly trained workforce needs training, as does a highly skilled workforce to be productive and competitive.

Much ink, blood and tears have been spilt by training researchers in trying to determine if training works.

But many frontline managers at the coal-face of industry are less enthusiastic about training. Often, less than positive experiences sour opinions of training. Most have experiences of a poorly informed trainer, an irrelevant workshop or some sort of children’s game packaged as a ‘transformational experience’.

A good training program should meet specific objectives. However, it is also useful to have a check list for what to avoid in a training program. Training programmes "fail" for the following reasons:

1. Misdiagnosing the real problem.

Training is the answer to poor or no learning.  It is not the answer to poor motivation, bad management or someone with no ability. A charming trainer can lift spirits for the afternoon, but no training course can help morale in the long run. Too frequently external training is used to address a problem that needs to be fixed internally.

2. Lack of specificity.

It’s the end of the fiscal year, there’s a bit of money left that needs to be spent, and suddenly a last-minute training course sounds like a good idea. Use the money, and mark ‘training’ off the HR checklist. If neither the trainer nor the participant is able to specify an explicit set of desired outcomes it can never be known if the course has failed or not.

3. Unrealistic expectations.

How long does it take to be a competent second language speaker or master conflict resolution? The answer is nearly always longer than you think or would like. Higher-level skills are not that easily acquired and take time to master.  Optimistic managers set goals far beyond what can be learned in an afternoon, and set the trainees up for failure.

4. Wrong type of training.

There are many types of training from self-directed, online learning to instructional courses and participatory workshops. Some training is about theoretical ideas, other about practice. Not all skills are best taught in the same way.  The preferences of the trainer and the trainee and the skill being taught combined should mean that the appropriate method is being used.

5. Training goals not aligned with work goals.

Training should be relevant and useful to the job at hand. Unless the trainee and the manager have got together and made sure they agree on the ultimate goals of the training it is quite likely that one or both will be disappointed. It is surprisingly rare for the two parties to discuss explicitly what they want.

6. Poor transfer of training.

When a trainee returns to the workplace, he or she needs a clear plan to practice, make mistakes, learn from them and develop the new skills, otherwise they are soon forgotten.  New skills may require new technology and certainly require new styles of supervision. Frequently however, jealous and incompetent managers punish, rather than reward, new skills and hence extinguish the beneficial effects of training.

7. No accountability for follow-up or implementation. 

Successful training does not end on completion of a class or workshop. It is the responsibility of the trainee to practice, maintain and even improve on the newly acquired skills. It is also the responsibility, or should be, of those who initiated the training, to make sure that expensively acquired skills are practiced and developed.


If you think training is expensive, consider the alternatives. What is the cost of an unskilled, untrained  and unproductive workforce? Training does not necessarily have to be expensive, but it does have to be continuous and carefully planned.  But training has to be carefully planned and thought through.  It does not have to be expensive, but it does have to be continuous.  The best training is a lifelong activity, not a quick fix.


Adrian Furnham