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

Four reasons money is dissatisfying, and what to do about it.

Every manager wants a happy, healthy, but highly productive staff. Ideally staff are motivated by the sheer joy of the job. But often, people want a little more compensation for their hard work. Often this is monetary, but compensation can take many other forms.

The most obvious extrinsic reward is money. And so we have the very simple-minded view that "if you pay people peanuts you will get monkeys". That is, that there is a simple relationship between reward, productivity and satisfaction. The idea is that better paid people are more productive and happy. Simple, casual, and entirely wrong.

Indeed there are at least four reasons why money is seen by business psychologists as much more likely to be a cause of dissatisfaction than satisfaction.

1. Pay for Performance

The relationship between pay and performance is often unclear, imprecise and unequal. The link between pay and performance is rarely straightforward, and this can be a considerable source of dissatisfaction. Perceived low pay can and does lead to considerable dissatisfaction and de-motivation. The reverse is not necessarily true. 

It is true that people often feel ‘happy’ after a pay rise but the effects wear off extraordinarily quickly. Any improvements in motivation are likely to be very temporary. Money can be a very effective motivator but you need a great deal of it to stop adaptation effects. Too much for most organisations to bear.

2. Relative Pay

Relative (or comparative) pay is more important than the absolute number. If one feels one is paid better than their comparison group, that may be satisfying. If one person’s salary increases they may feel that temporary increase in job satisfaction. If the entire team’s pay is increased it is unlikely anyone will feel (comparatively) better off. But satisfaction is always relatively with pay. No matter what people are paid if they believe, with or without evidence, that they are not equitably and fairly paid they become demotivated.

3. Work Values

Money is not everything to everyone. Many prefer other rewards, perks or benefits to pay. Some would prefer more time off, better job security or more flexibility in their work. If there is a trade off between a higher salary and other benefits, not everyone is prepared to make the sacrifice. And if it is seen as making a ‘sacrifice’ for increased pay (say, reduced time off) that pay rise is unlikely to be seen as motivating. 

4. Perceived Inequality

There are simple approaches to pay for performance. The Performance Management System seems logical and fair when productivity is easy to measure such as in sales jobs. Low base-rate, high commission. There is a clear logical and equitable relationship between personal effort, outcome and reward. It is essentially a piece-rate system. It works well. But we do know the attrition rate in sales staff is incredibly high (and can be over 90% in the insurance industry) and that the distribution of salaries is incredibly skewed.

But the logical consequence of paying everyone based on specific measures of performance quickly becomes apparent. Most people are paid less than their colleagues and so quite quickly become dissatisfied with their own pay. Whatever one does to keep salaries or bonuses secret, people get angered and frustrated by perceived inequity. It seems the clearer one make the relationship the more upset people get, particularly those in power who have lived under the old regime and they had "earnt" their right to power, influence and money. Hence the dissatisfaction with these systems and organisations abandoning them.

The real problem is that almost everyone values pay to a certain extent. Not everyone values pay equally, but most still value pay equity. It’s a constant difficulty in that pay is the most often employed tool for compensating and rewarding employees for their performance, but it’s more often a source of dissatisfaction than satisfaction.

The trick is understanding what people value, rewarding them appropriately, equitably and aligned with what they value.

Read more here about Work Values and how to measure them.



Adrian Furnham

Are There Really Generational Differences in Workplace Values?


So-called Millenials are a growing segment of the workforce, and there is much discussion about the values, motivations and expectations of Millenials compared with other generations. But you might find the real generational differences in values surprising. We used our High Potential datasets to put the question to the test: Do values differ between generations?

We used the three typical categories to describe generations. The Baby Boomers were born in the postwar period roughly between the 1945s and 1965. The Boomers grew up during a period of relative affluence, high birth rates and the beginning of space exploration. Generation X was born between 1965 and 1985, grew up with the rise of mass media, and the end of the Cold War. And the Millenials were born after 1985, grew up with the internet, the rise of international terrorism and digital globalization.

Many believe that shared generational memories of key events and experiences shape attitudes and values. Then, simply describe the differences between these groups and you’ve got generational differences. Although there are several flaws in this logic, the most glaring problem is that being born at the same time does little to guarantee any sort of shared experience.

Individual values change based on a whole host of differences, from your family life, upbringing, culture, peer group and socioeconomic status. This makes it incredibly difficult to know whether “generational” differences actually exist. But the first question is when you sort people into age categories, do differences appear?

To look at generational differences we combined various studies on values with over 700 responses from Northern Europe and North America. These were measured using the High Potential Motivators test which includes six core values:

  • Autonomy Focus on personal and career development, relevance and 
  • Recognition Desire for achievement, power status and recognition.  
  • Affiliation Desire for social responsibility, passing on knowledge, teaching and instruction and working with others. 
  • Security Valuing job security, personal safety as well as consistency and regularity.
  • Compensation Material rewards such as pay, insurance, bonuses, and job perks that are easily measurable, counted and defined.
  • Relevance  A job that fits within the person’s lifestyle and offers some flexibility.

And indeed, we do find very minor generational differences in each of the six values (see Figure 1, below). Most of the differences are statistically insignificant, except for Millenials valuing Compensation and Conditions significantly more than other generations.  This runs contrary to the common belief that younger generations prefer creativity and personal expression above getting a paycheque.

Generational Differences in Work Values Millenials

Error bars show 1 Standard Deviation

However, looking a bit deeper, there is another, unsurprising finding. Older people tend to make more money. In our sample, that average income was about £60,000 (USD$90,000) for Boomers and Gen X, while it was approximately £30,000 (USD$45,000). This is slightly higher than the median income for those employed full-time in the UK. The average full time employee makes about £25,000 per year ($37,500); whereas the average manager makes about £50,000 per year ($75,000). 

First, it should be noted that Generation Y has no significant differences in work values from the Baby Boomers, along with no significant difference in income in this sample.

When we consider the combined effect of age and income, income entirely explains the generational differences in values. Income is more than seven times more powerful a predictor than age (see Figure 2 below) When considering the effect of income, the generational/age differences become completely [statistically] insignificant.


So, once you consider the effect of income, it entirely makes sense that those who make much less money would value compensation and security more than those who are better off.

These findings contradict the stories about entitled Millenials who want autonomy, freedom and creativity in favor of job security or a well-paid job. In fact, the story is much simpler. People who make less money place more value on security and income.

Group differences are a tricky subject, particularly when members of a group have little in common, except being born within a decade or two of one another. This data clearly shows there is substantially more variation within any generation than between. The minor generational differences that do exist can be easily explained by variations in employment and income status rather than being a component of any particular generation.

In answer to the question, ‘how do Millenials’ values differ from other generations?’ In short: they don’t.

The real differences is that people who make more (or less) money tend to have different values.



Statistical Note: When age and income are regressed onto the conditions variable. Income explained a significant proportion of Conditions scores β = -0.36, t(650) = -8.76, p < .001, and age did not predict a significant proportion of Conditions scores β = 0.05, t(650) = 1.28, p = 0.20.  R2 = 0.11, F(2, 649) = 42.64, p < .0001


Ian MacRae