Nigel McPolin
Founder, etimes2 ltd

Why do people work?

This is a key question for most businesses.  If you can figure out why people work (why your employees turn up every day), then you can hone in on how to motivate them more effectively.

In my experiences to date, one of the major influences on why we work and how engaged we are when at work is our own individual identify.  Our identity is crucial to how we are motivated at work because it contains all our personal drivers – what we want from our work and career, our development needs, our need to belong and feel connected to people and organisations etc.  In order to be motivated, therefore, we must be involved as individuals and take an active role in being motivated.

Video: etimes2 Amazing Workplaces Programme

The ‘meaning’ of work

It is the connection between the work that we do and our individual identity where the ‘meaning’ of work can be found.  We are all individuals.  This means that the ‘meaning’ of work will be slightly different for all of us, even if we are working side by side in the same team doing the same job.

So, how do businesses then motivate their employees?

The work by Deci & Ryan in the 1980s provides great insights to explain the connection between an employee’s individual identity and their motivation in the workplace.  They identified six main reasons why people work: play, purpose, potential, emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia.

Of these six motivations to work, three are positive and increase performance (we will focus on these motives).  These are:

  1. Play – you work because you enjoy it and you are motivated by the work itself. This is where we see the ‘passion’ we often talk about observing in EX2 Employee engagement platformhighly motivated people.  They are passionate because they are doing something they love that is also close to their individual identity.  They believe in what they do. People who are motivated by the work itself are more likely to experiment with what they do.  They will enjoy work related challenges and problem solving.


  1. Purpose – you work because you are motivated by the impact of the job you do. You are motivated by the outcome.  This is because the your individual identity connects with the purpose of your job and, probably, your employer.  The employee motivated by purpose will buy into the vision and values of their employer.  As a result, the outcome of the work you do fits directly with your individual identity.


  1. Potential – you are motivated by the idea that the work you are doing is enhancing your potential.  An employee motivated by potential is thinking longer term.  This employee is thinking about their job in the context of future achievement.  As a result, development and career enhancement are important to this employee as this benefits their identity.  Their identity is found in that ‘future’ version of themselves.


The key point in these three positive motives is that people who are motivated by any of these are actually thinking about the work they do.  They are focused on the job.

On the other hand, the negative motives – emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia – actually reduce performance because they are disconnected from both the work and the employee’s individual identity.  It is unlikely that an employee motivated to work by any of these three will care much about the job s/he is doing.  They are not thinking about the work.


Why people work: increasing positive motivation

The key for businesses, then, is to maximise the play, purpose and potential felt by employees while also reducing the impact of emotional pressure, economic pressure and inertia.  If you understand why people work in your company, then you can start to provide some of these positive motivators.


Tips to Motivate Your Employees

  1. Make employee’s jobs more playful

Build in creative or invention time to your employees’ job roles.  Encourage employees to play around with new ideas and new ways of doing things.


  1. Experience the ‘purpose’ of your job

Give your employees the opportunity to see how the products they make are used in real life.  Or, simply discuss the impact of your products on your customers in team meetings.


  1. Dump the performance review

Don’t rely on outdated performance review systems that your employees loathe and your managers consider pointless.  They actually work against potential.  Instead, encourage your employees to identify their career goals over the next few years and empower them to pursue these goals.


Could your business benefit from a higher motivated and driven workforce?  Yes?  So, what are you doing to create more play, purpose and potential to motivate your employees?

We hope you enjoy our blogs. Please follow and like us: