What is employee motivation?

Lodewijk Noordzij

In this article we will define what is employee motivation and why is so important for organizations.

The word ‘motivation’ derives from the Latin word for movement ‘movere’. In motivation literature different definitions for motivation are given. All these definitions emphasise the fact that motivation relates to the factors that give rise to certain behaviour, channel this behaviour, and sustain it in order to achieve a certain goal.1

It is often seen as a construct, because it is assumed to be a process that cannot be localised. It is intangible, invisible, hard to measure and extraordinarily difficult to control. This relates to the question of why people will or will not make an effort for something. In this context motivation can be seen as a force that generates energy. This energy ensures that employees take action.

mo-ti-va-tion (n.)
1 desire to do; interest or drive
2 [psych.] the process that arouses, sustains and regulates behaviour

Motivation has the following functions and characteristics:

  • Initiation: it drives action. What does someone do?
  • Intensity: it activates action. How hard does someone work?
  • Perseverance: it sustains action. How long does someone keep working?
  • Meaningful: gives meaning to action. Why does someone do something?

The importance of motivation

According to humanistic psychologists, self-realisation is at the heart of being human. It is in our nature to allow opportunities and talents to flourish, in order to get the most out of ourselves. This applies both to the social (friends) and the societal sphere (education, job).

Motivation plays an important role in improving your organisation’s performance. Motivated employees can help take an organisation to the next level, in order to make it successful.2 Motivated employees are also often more satisfied, innovative and productive.

In short, motivated employees ensure that within your organisation:

  • There is a positive work atmosphere…
  • Where employees are happy to work hard…
  • Where employees are service-oriented towards clients…
  • And because of this, better results are achieved.

Motivation is thus the driving force behind your organisation’s success and ensures that your employees remain active and contribute to better performance. Furthermore, a high level of motivation leads to a demonstrably lower level of absence and turnover.

As motivation, so employee engagement plays a crucial role in the performance of an organization. To know more about employee engagement read also ”Discover the value of employee engagement in human resource management”

Motivation and humans’ basic needs

Everyone has basic needs in order to feel good about their life; this also applies to their work. If these needs are met according to your employee’s expectations, the motivation to grow also increases, to get the best out of yourself and the situation. Your employees’ motivation is linked to the different basic needs which are all connected to one another, including certainty, solidarity and growth. As an employer it is important, as far as possible, to meet these natural needs in order to motivate your employees optimally.

Your employees’ basic needs:


Everyone wants a degree of certainty in their lives. Of course, there can never be total certainty. In particularly areas, however, we do strive for this certainty. For example, we want to be certain that our salary will be paid every month, so that we can pay the rent.


At first glance, this need appears to contradict the previous need; and indeed, if everything in life was certain, if everything was known in advance, life would become boring. That is why everyone also needs a degree of uncertainty or variety in their life to avoid boredom and create excitement.

Be of significance

Everyone wants to feel important, to a certain degree. This can be achieved in different ways. One person might find it in starting a family, the other in having a successful career. We all want to feel that we are needed and lead a meaningful life. That is, lead a life that matters. 


Everyone needs solidarity. We want to belong somewhere, we want to care for someone or be cared for. Everyone needs friends/family. Everyone needs contact with others. This also applies at work. 


The needs mentioned above are basic needs necessary in order to be able to work with motivation; but this is not enough for every employee. Employees want to grow. Growth can be essential for motivation. Your employees may have the need to grow mentally, emotionally and financially.

Make a contribution

Last of all, your employees want to make a contribution. They want to contribute to the greater whole. If your organisation fulfils a socially relevant role, this will contribute to your organisation’s success. This need can, just like growth, be an important key on a personal level to leading a satisfying life. Fulfilling these needs at the work level is also an important key to your performance and success as a whole organisation.

Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation

There are two distinguishable sorts of motivation, namely intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation means that people want to make an effort for something because they are stimulated from inside, for example by being given responsibilities.This form of motivation is entirely dependent on the nature of the activity.3 Employees are motivated, because they attach value to the activity. The activity is an enriching experience for them, which offers challenges and opportunities to develop.4 Intrinsic motivation relates to action, which is guided by a feeling of satisfaction and fulfilment.

Extrinsic motivation means that people will make an effort for something, because they are stimulated from outside, for example by money or status. In contrast to intrinsic motivation, in which work is seen as valuable, employees who are extrinsically motivated see their work purely and solely as a means to an end. Fulfilment is not gained from the work itself but from related things.5 People can become extrinsically motivated by both economic and social stimuli. Employees are economically motivated if they take good remuneration, good working conditions and job security as the basis on which to evaluate their work. Status and chances for promotion give a feeling of fulfilment.6

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are related in the sense that intrinsic motivation can be coloured by extrinsic influences. Factors that are external to the individual, such as remuneration, can have a negative effect on intrinsic motivation. Linking bonuses to targets can lead to employees who initially worked enthusiastically to meet targets, ultimately only focusing on the target that offers the biggest bonus. 

Survival Syndrome

What is it? Survival syndrome is a term that describes the impact of major change upon employee attitudes and behaviours for those that remain after reductions in the workforce have recently occurred. The feeling of job uncertainty and the negative external market result in a high level of psychological stress. Survival Syndrome left unchecked and / or managed results in significant unwanted financial and human cost to the organisation. By assessing the measure and attitudinal drivers of Survival Syndrome it becomes possible to manage it, such that organisational performance, productivity and loss of key employees is minimised.

  1. Steers, R.M., Mowday, R.T., Shapiro, D.L. (2004) The Future of Work Motivation Theory. Academy of Management Review, Vol. 29, 379-387
  2. Edginton, C. R., Hudson, S. D., & Lankford, S. V., (2001) Managing Recreation, Parks, and Leisure Services: An Introduction. Champaign, IL: Sagamore 
  3. Vinke, R.H.W. (1996) Motivatie en Belonen: De Mythe van Intrinsieke Motivatie. Deventer: Kluwer 
  4. Watson, T.J. (1995) Sociology, Work and Industry. London: Routledge
  5. Watson, T.J. (1995) Sociology, Work and Industry. London: Routledge 
  6. Moor, W. de (1993) Arbeidsmotivatie als Management Instrument. Houten/ Diegem: Bohn Stafleu van Loghum