Guest Column - July/August 2016

How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation

By Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP


Business leaders have come to realize a strong corporate culture is vital for long-term success; yet being able to create an optimal culture has repeatedly eluded many of them. It's time for leaders to step up and get this right once and for all, as it could mean the difference between organizational success and dismal failure.

In Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation, authors Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi offer several tactics and an important insight to aid leaders in finally cracking the elusive formula for building a great culture: why we work determines how well we work.

Culture Drives Performance

Academics have studied why people work for nearly a century, but a major breakthrough was made in the 1980s when professors Edward Deci and Richard Ryan from the University of Rochester discovered the six main reasons people work: play, purpose, potential, emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia.

The first three motivational drivers are directly connected to our work itself and tend to increase performance, while the indirect (from the work itself) motivational drivers of the latter three tend to reduce performance:

  1. Play: You're motivated by your work itself and work because you enjoy it. Play is our learning instinct, and it's tied to curiosity, experimentation and exploring challenging problems.
  2. Purpose: The direct outcome of your work fits your identity. You work because you value the work's impact.
  3. Potential: The outcome of your work benefits your identity and enhances your potential.
  4. Emotional pressure: You work because some external force threatens your identity. Fear, peer pressure and shame are all forms of emotional pressure. When you do something to avoid disappointing yourself or others, you're acting on emotional pressure.
  5. Economic pressure: An external force makes you work to gain a reward or avoid a punishment. Now the driver is not only separate from the work itself, it's also separate from your identity.
  6. Inertia: This happens when the driver is so far removed from your work and your identity that you can't identify why you're working. It's still a driver because you're doing the activity, but you can't necessarily explain why.

Indirect motivational drivers tend to reduce performance because you're no longer thinking about the work—you're thinking about the disappointment, or the reward, or why you're bothering to do the work at all. You're distracted, and you might not even care about the work or the quality of the outcome.

Not surprisingly, the authors found high-performing cultures inspired more play, purpose and potential, and less emotional pressure, economic pressure or inertia.

Factors That Affect Culture

Culture is the result of a collective set of factors in an organization that affect employee motivation. In high-performing cultures, those factors maximize motivation. The authors suggest you keep the following in mind when working to build or reinforce an ideal culture:

  • There's no silver bullet. Many factors affect employee motivation, and you need to be mindful of them all. But make a special effort to design highly motivating jobs—encourage play by giving workers the opportunity, time and resources to develop and test new ideas as much as possible.
  • Protect your organization's brand promise. Your organization's brand, mission and behavioral code are critical factors that have an impact on culture and motivation. Ensure your corporate mission is clear to all, and help employees understand the purpose of their individual work and how it benefits both colleagues and customers.
  • Be sensitive to the promotion process. Many leaders have concluded their employee performance review process (which usually drives promotions) may actually be detrimental to performance and foster unhealthy competition. When employees are stack-ranked or rated against one another, emotional and economic pressure is elevated, reducing motivation and performance.
  • Culture is an ecosystem. All the elements of culture interact with and reinforce each other, often in unexpected or unintentional ways. Never underestimate the power of your influence as a leader or the consequences of your actions. Leaders' behaviors will make a greater impact on employees than what leaders say, so make certain your instructions and behaviors are congruent.