The Importance of Motivation and Its Role in the Workplace

9 min read

What is the importance of motivation?

The importance of motivation can be seen through people being inspired to make a change in their lives. For employees specifically, this might mean aiming to enhance their performance in the office, leading them to generally work harder and smarter, and allowing them to complete tasks efficiently, properly, and on deadline—all of which positively impact the organization’s bottom line.

That’s pretty standard, right?

As a result, you’ll see trends around employee benefits pop up and then fade, from unlimited PTO to foosball; giant workplace “campuses” that boast free meals, gymnasiums, and even go karts and rock walls.

Companies provide such “perks” because yes, they make employees happy, but also because there’s a better chance that these happy employees will improve the bottom line. Strong teams and productive employees provide great products and services for what are hopefully happy customers. These are the characteristics that successful companies are made of.

But one big thing is missing. One thing that if not a part of this motivation equation, renders even 100 foosball tables useless.

Goals. Well, two things. Goals and rewards.

Many companies that offered ping pong, arcade games, and more have risen quickly, but have also fizzled out just as fast. But sales compensation – the kind that rewards employees for hitting their numbers with timely sales commission in return – has been around for years, and is guaranteed to be around for years to come.

Why is motivation important in the workplace?

Why? Because while we all love a good competitive game of table tennis, the excitement and anticipation of the next workplace showdown will surely lose its motivational luster. In contrast, goals and rewards truly motivate employees to wake up excited for work, pushing them through office doors with heads held high and the vigor to tackle the challenges forthcoming.

Simply, when we have goals in front of us, we have something to chase. More importantly, though, setting such benchmarks “forces” managers and employees to:

  • Discuss company goals that might have otherwise been just big, bold words styled on a wall.
  • Set personal objectives related to those company goals (and solid paths to achievement).
  • Reinforce the workplace behaviors that keep employees happy and the company flourishing.

All things said, the level of employee motivation your company is searching for is attainable. Fun table games and readily-available snacks and lunches have their benefits, but true “motivation activation” requires the right goals to be matched with the perfect incentives.

Ok, we get it—goals and rewards are important. How about a concrete example?

Consider for a minute the classic example of General Electric and their 900 smokers.

Quitting what many believe to be a terrible habit in smoking offers powerful “incentives” in the form of reducing the risk of cancer and emphysema, preserving white teeth, reducing the severity of colds, and so on. All in all, there are some very good, compelling reasons for putting the cigarette down, right?

But, would you believe that the ultimate motivator in getting these employees to quit smoking was cash? And not even boat loads of it?

Kevin Volpp, director of Pennsylvania School of Medicine’s Center for Health Incentives, discovered that to be the case in a popular study.

In it, the 900 smokers were split into two groups, and both groups were given the exact same information on how to best go about quitting smoking. In addition, though, the second group was also promised $100 if they completed a program built around quitting smoking altogether. To sweeten the deal, this group would also receive $250 if they were able to refrain from smoking for six months, and another $400 for being free of tobacco for another six months on top of that.

At the end of the day, the total incentive package for the second group amounted to $750 if they finished the program and quit smoking for a year—not a huge chunk of change, but a decent enough amount to go along with those other benefits like whiter teeth, more pleasant breath, smoke-free clothing, and of course, better health.

And I’m not downplaying the difficulty involved in quitting smoking. If it were easy, we wouldn’t be talking about a study around what it would take to get people to stop such a hazardous activity.

Anyway, the results. According to

“About a year after the study began, 14.7 percent of the incentive group had successfully stopped smoking, compared to 5 percent in the control group. Checked again 15 to 18 months after the study's start, 9.4 percent of those in the incentive group remained abstinent, compared to just 3.6 percent of the control group.”

And, if you’re wondering about how many people quit smoking per year outside of the study (at the time of the study), only about 2 to 3 percent of smokers quit every year.

Thomas Glynn of the American Cancer Society said the study “shows the power that a monetary incentive can offer, and the power of the workplace as a health-promotion tool.” Agreed. Given the success of incentives in this case, the question becomes:

Why doesn’t this happen more?

Meaning, why aren’t incentives a part of every workplace as a tool to drive better performance? It’s not because some companies don’t understand the importance of motivation. We all should now understand its value in some shape or another.

Perhaps "fear" is the culprit? It could be one reason of many.

When organizations don’t have the information they need to set quality goals, they usually don’t have the means to effectively establish a system of incentives. All of this rolls up into fear of making a mistake, or not compensating correctly, whether that’s accidentally too much or too little. So, they keep working with whatever they’re most comfortable, which is the status quo.

In the end we are left with goals set just for the sake of setting goals, annual sales performance reviews that don’t offer any value, weak incentives, and employees who really have no loyalty to the success or failure of the organization. That’s what is really scary.

Motivation is too important to be fearful of. Your team is faced with distractions on a daily basis, providing an abundance of opportunities for them to be thrown off the course of their work. The importance – and beauty – of motivation is that it also functions as blinders, keeping your team focused on the tasks at hand.

If it is in fact fear that is holding you back, try and dig in at least a little, to start. Learn more about ways to improve morale in the workplace, or the benefit of non-cash rewards. Setting goals should be one of the best performance-improving tools in your arsenal, not something you do just to do, and certainly not something you’re scared of.