What Motivates Workers? An Exploration of How Employees Relate to Their Roles

BY Mary Pieper | November 16, 2023

For past generations of Americans, getting a job was usually just a means to an end. Although some people have always felt called to certain careers, for most individuals, the goal was simply to find work that allowed them to support themselves and their families. 

However, young people today “Are willing to trade off real income to join organizations where they feel aligned with the purpose or mission,” said Amy Wrzesniewski, the William and Jacalyn Egan Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Wrzesniewski was interviewed by Reynaldo Anderson, Graduate Director and Associate Professor of Africology and African American Studies at Temple University during From Day One’s recent Philadelphia conference

“Whether we're talking about neurosurgeons or laborers, and their relationships to how satisfied they are with their lives, work, and experiences of well-being, their sense of purpose and satisfaction is significantly better if they feel as though they would do what they're doing in the workplace anyway, even if they won the lottery.”

How to Attract and Retain Workers With a Calling

Although many companies are realizing the benefits of hiring people who are mission-driven, these employers often fail to support them, according to Wrzesniewski. 

Dr. Reynaldo Anderson of Temple University interviewed Wrzesniewski in the grand finale fireside chat. 

Once they join an organization, workers too often “Find that the calling for the work that they’re doing is eliminated over time by how the work is arranged in the organization, how the jobs are designed, how they’re being led and managed, and so on,” she said. 

A company’s leaders, managers, and supervisors should, instead, educate new employees and help them tap into what the organization is trying to accomplish and what their responsibilities are, says Wrzesniewski. 

The next step is to give employees as much autonomy as possible to carry out their responsibilities. However, companies must provide some guidance, Wrzesniewski added.

“I think everybody wants autonomy until you have too much,” she said. “And once you have too much, it’s paralyzing. And it’s terrifying. And it’s particularly paralyzing if you're new to the job, the workforce, or the organization, and you don’t know what you don’t know.”

The benefits of autonomy only come once new hires have a secure base of knowledge about how things are done within the organization, according to Wrzesniewski. She said one of her greatest concerns is that hybrid and remote work can prevent these employees from gaining that knowledge. 

“There’s so much information, understanding what it is that the organization is trying to make happen that gets lost when people are not working together,” Wrzesniewski said. She noted that loss contributes “to that sense of anxiety about not knowing what to do with the autonomy or how to get from A to B if you haven’t traveled that path many times previously with your colleagues, supervisors, or more senior teammates.”

Include Everyone To Boost Motivation

Although providing guidance and support to younger team members is crucial to keep them motivated, employers should also pay attention to their more experienced workers, says Wrzesniewski. She said these employees, who didn’t grow up with “a very deep understanding of all of the technological tools and bells and whistles” that their more junior colleagues had, are facing a lot of anxiety because of advancements such as artificial intelligence.

“The solution is to create partnerships, cross training, cross education, between these younger folks and these older folks, because they have such different skill sets and knowledge bases,” Wrzesniewski said. 

One of the best methods for getting team members from different backgrounds and fields to work together is to give them a common goal that they can only accomplish through cooperation, says Wrzesniewski. 

“But a way to amp up the motivation is to identify a common enemy that will wipe them all out,” she said. “That can be a competitor, a competitive environmental force that is not in the form of a person or a group that is threatening to all of them if they don’t band together to try to solve that problem. That can be enormously motivating and quite effective at erasing boundaries between people from different groups who we’re trying to bring together in service of a larger goal.”

Mary Pieper is a freelance reporter based in Mason City, Iowa.


From DEI to EDI, How Companies Can Rethink Diversity Strategies

For Heather Caruso, Ph.D., associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, the acronym for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) didn’t quite fit the bill. “We are very intentional about saying EDI at Anderson because it’s meant to be a reflection of how these things build up on one another,” Caruso said.“I start with equity because what we’re trying to do is address the fact that the world has, for most of its history, not been particularly welcoming of different perspectives. To get diversity, we have to acknowledge that there are going to be some inequities in people’s paths in our school.”At From Day One’s Los Angeles conference, Caruso sat with journalist Margot Roosevelt for a fireside chat, delving into the challenges and benefits of addressing diversity in educational and corporate settings, and how leaders can strategize for a more inclusive environment for all identities.Balancing CensorshipIn a study on self-censorship, researchers found only 16% of Americans were comfortable talking about politics with anybody. In contrast, 77% of Americans said they actively self-censor around certain people.In an increasingly divided country, companies and universities are being put in the spotlight on their choice to respond to political and social issues. The decision, in either case, would be a difficult one to make, Caruso says.“Wrestling with that frustration about the existence of different narratives is at the core of what EDI and DEI professionals have to help their organizations confront, because it’s a key barrier to achieving a thriving diverse community,” Caruso said.  “If there’s some domain where we can’t tolerate the existence of different points of view, then that’s potentially a boundary on our commitment to welcome diversity.”Heather Caruso, Ph.D., (left) was the featured speaker, interviewed by journalist Margot Roosevelt (right).Censorship and free speech remain a delicate balance for U.S. college campuses as well. A recent study found students view free speech as important, yet feel unsafe to express their opinions because of fear of judgment or reprimand from their peers and campus.There is no right answer to this issue, Caruso says. “It’s a gamble either way, but I think organizations benefit from at least being intentional about the bet they’re making. We’re betting that some boundaries are necessary or we’re betting that we can create and innovate in this space and find a way to handle it,” Caruso said.By making intentional choices to engage or change work cultures, leaders can help foster a safer environment for their communities to participate in. Keeping an open mind and willingness to learn all play key roles in developing change, Caruso said.“Learn as much as you can as you go. If we encourage that kind of experimentation and learning as much as possible, then we will at least be able to update and refine and improve our efforts more quickly,” Caruso said.Work From the Bottom Up, Instead of Top DownRecent studies show that a diverse workforce has a strong business value, with diverse companies earning 2.5x higher cash flow per employee than less-diverse companies. However, leaders need to think beyond just the business value when approaching EDI strategies.“Top-down initiatives are largely the initiatives where some leader or organization comes out with a proclamation that diversity is the right thing to do because of the business value,” Caruso said. “My problem is that when the business value is centered around getting people to engage with diversity in a certain way, then it tends to focus people on a transactional thing.”Caruso suggests companies focus on bottom-up approaches that look to the root of diversity issues instead of looking for and hiring employees that fit diversity needs.“Try to figure out what you need and try to solve that problem with the people that are right there in the company. Why is it that we’re not seeing a certain race or ethnicity in the organization? Is there something that systematically excludes them from the process?” Caruso said. “I want to see employers give people more room to pick and choose where they want to be and how they want to show up.”Wanly Chen is a writer and poet based in New York City.

Wanly Chen | December 07, 2023

Building a Corporate Culture of Creativity, Passion, and Empathy

United Talent Agency has gone through plenty of changes of late, but one thing that keeps them moving forward is collaboration. Specifically, nurturing relationships with clients so they can more effectively tell their stories.Jean-Rene Zetrenne, chief people officer at United Talent Agency, says as they build opportunities for those clients, others take notice.“They might be looking and saying, I see the success you’ve had here for Bad Bunny, I’ve seen the success you’ve had with Rosalía. I’ve seen the success you’ve had for Karol G. How can I be part of that?” he said. Zetrenne spoke to UTA’s strategies in a fireside chat at From Day One’s Los Angeles Conference. Alison Brower, Business Insider’s Los Angeles bureau chief, moderated. Providing a VoiceAlison Brower of Business Insider interviewed Jean-Rene Zetrenne of UTA in the opening fireside chat at From Day One's conference in LA.Prior to his role at UTA, Zetrenne spent 14 years at Ogilvy, a creative and founder-led environment. In considering the move to Hollywood, what resonated was that UTA was also founder-led.“I can understand the journey that the company is going to be going through as it continues to scale and to grow,” he said. “We sit at the nexus of culture, communications, media, sports, you name it, we are there. We’re able to curate and create an experience that shapes culture. For me, it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”With UTA’s name and reputation, they can bring in the names, but what Zetrenne said makes an impact is helping them grow. UTA recently conducted an engagement survey, and the results showed that diverse populations coming into the company feel a sense of belonging.“As in, the organization gives me a voice and a place for me to speak,” he said. “UTA thrives on people having a point of view. Having a point of view is what’s going to help us succeed.”Another driver is diverse people sitting in all areas of the company. Candidates want to see people at the senior level and all other levels who look like them. Plus it helps on the client-facing side to know that DEI is taken seriously. “We have diverse leaders represented at the partnership level. This gives people a sense that they have an opportunity to grow and be successful here,” Zetrenne said. Continuing that mindset is UTA’s program for people of color to opt-in through the onboarding process to gain guidance from other executives that have been successful in the organization. Taking RisksAllowing people to tell their stories is key. UTA has internal initiatives where they have their own fireside chats, which helps to foster collaboration and the exchange of ideas. That mindset and value focus is how UTA allows its people to lead the way and encourage them to take risks.That kind of collaboration has paid off in developing an entrepreneurial spirit. UTA has added more facets to its business just in the last few years. “We didn’t have UTA marketing three or four years back. We had an idea, and it came from within the organization,” he said. The same idea goes for acquisitions. UTA has 2,000 employees globally, and 70 percent of the company has joined by way of acquisition and new hires in the last few years. How do you keep the core mindset of the company while bringing on so many new people?“One of the things that we’ve learned is there’s not one culture that fits within UTA. If you’re going to get the maximum experience out of any company that you acquire, you have to allow them to be who they are.” At the same time, they need to find commonality with who UTA is, which is collaboration, entrepreneurship, innovation. “You must allow for the different points of view to come to the table and make sure that you create space for that.”Giving BackFurther expanding its way of thinking, the UTA Foundation’s Project Impact sets aside one day a year for all employees to give back to the communities where they live.  “The idea behind it was to create a space where you could connect clients with some of their philanthropic endeavors, and at the same time, help us as an organization to find ways to give back to our communities.” It’s been a tremendous success in not only turning outward to help others, but to show people in and out of the community what they’re all about.Carrie Snider is a Phoenix-based journalist and marketing copywriter.

Carrie Snider | December 07, 2023

Thriving Within: How Companies Are Fostering Internal Mobility for Success

Why do most employees choose to leave their companies? A Gallup survey of job seekers looking to leave their current role discovered that the number one reason was lack of engagement with their organization, cites Scott David, CEO and founder of The Authentic Executive. Respondents explained they were looking for professional development, career advancement opportunities, and more interesting work to keep them engaged. The good news is that this is a salvageable situation for employers willing to focus on their employee engagement and internal mobility strategies.To retain valued workers and attract top talent, more companies are focusing on providing both upskilling and reskilling opportunities to their workers to help prepare them to move into new roles across the organization. During a panel discussion at From Day One’s Denver conference, experts discussed the benefits of improving internal mobility. In the discussion titled “Creating Opportunity Within: How Employers Are Boosting Internal Mobility,” the panelists discussed topics around how employers can coordinate these efforts by their executive teams and leaders in HR and talent acquisition, and why better internal mobility can align with efforts toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion.Helping a Company’s Bottom LineDavid notes that studies from Gallup, SHRM, and Deloitte have found that internal mobility correlates with a 21% increase in engagement, a 23% increase in productivity, and a 40% reduction in turnover. “So when you figure it takes one-and-a-half to two times somebody's salary to replace them, those numbers add up pretty quickly,” David said.Upskilling is one of the key ways to increase retention. When employees have an opportunity for professional growth, even if it’s just skills-based rather than a title, it can increase their desire to stay. Panelist Kassey Kampman, VP of people operations at SSA Group, is a perfect example, having started as a cashier at the company then growing in her responsibilities over 15 years. Kampman shares that the company looked to its employees to guide it on what training to provide. “We took the bottom-up approach, which is very organic, leaning into our daily operations and observing skill gaps, observing our operators in the field, letting our people tell us what skills they’re interested in and what they are seeking,” Kampman said. From there, they were able to build out a standardized upskilling model.Rebecca Warren, director of customer success at Eightfold, agrees that an organic approach is most effective. “When we back it up a little bit and say, ‘what skills are actually needed for this position?’ and we start putting a focus on the person as opposed to focus on the job, those skills become really apparent,” Warren said.David Mafe, chief diversity officer & VP of HR at Denver Metro Region, UCHealth, emphasizes the need for removing hard and fast requirements, such as certain academic certifications, from job descriptions in order to let the right people grow naturally in a role. “I think that’s really the future of upskilling,” Mafe said. “It's about removing the barriers so people are able to move once they develop skills. What we'll find is that there are people who are qualified who are hiding in plain sight.”Upskilling as a DEI strategyRemoving these barriers for advancement and instituting an internal upskilling program can complement an organization’s diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy, helping to ensure that employees from marginalized groups have access to all the tools they need to succeed. Mafe’s team noticed a high turnover of entry-level employees who were struggling with a need for better tuition assistance. Many of them were Black or Hispanic, often first-generation immigrants. UCHealth began offering in-house short-term skills training programs to try to offset the need for these employees to pay for education elsewhere. Getting an in-house certification in just a few months allows workers to progress to positions within the company where they can make more money.“You can start as a front desk person earning X amount, and then [transition to a role] where there's an immediate $3, $4, sometimes $5 difference that you're able to gain access to within about seven months, which is really powerful and makes a tremendous difference in the lives of the people that are working for us,” Mafe said. “We had this expectation that it was going to improve engagement, retention, and DEI and we saw all of those things right away.”In a conversation moderated by Elizabeth Hernandez, reporter at The Denver Post, the panelists discussed the topic “Creating Opportunity Within: How Employers Are Boosting Internal Mobility.” Melissa Uribes, VP of talent, diversity, equity and inclusion at Trimble, says her organization began working with workforce partners to provide accelerated boot-camp style training to employees that have demonstrated the right competencies for success in an effort to bring in more diverse leaders to a traditionally white male skewing team of engineering professionals. The partner even screens training candidates for Trimble and develops the 20-week curriculum. “Of the 20 employees who came through that cohort, Trimble ended up hiring about seven of them and they are really thriving in terms of their contribution to the company,” Uribes said.  “And we have dramatically changed their economic mobility because they've now had access to a career field that they did not have access to before.”Employers are also recognizing that networking and mentorship are just as integral as education when it comes to retention – and that too can affect DEI statistics. Kampman says SSA Group built a mentorship program in 2015, when at the time it had only 23% female representation in its general management positions. “We had an ‘Empower Her’ ERG that was fostered toward empowering women in leadership. In leaning on the mentorship program, we were able to shift that representation to 52% in 2023,” Kampman said. The company has expanded the mentorship program to also include hard skills training as well as leadership exposure for its hourly workforce, 75% of which comes from marginalized groups.Shifting the Mindset Toward Internal MobilityOne of the biggest challenges to ensuring internal mobility can be a mindset shift for leaders who may not have prioritized it in the past. Part of this comes from recognizing past patterns, such as talent hoarding among departments and from there, developing benchmarks to reinforce accountability, Uribes says.This keeps efforts from being performative, what moderator Elizabeth Hernandez, reporter at The Denver Post, called a “one-off brown bag lunch” meeting so that the leadership team can say that they tried. “Every organization in the company has goals around career mobility and career growth, and we do monitor,” Uribes said. “Very quickly, we were able to ensure that almost 25% of our requisitions are filled with internal talent.”That mindset shift can also mean seeing internal mobility as not just tied to roles, but also to responsibilities and projects, Warren says, which are all “different ways to get people invested” and can keep the work fresh and exciting for employees. Managers are encouraged to develop gigs that can help employees build skills and try out new projects, while simultaneously ticking the boxes of major tasks needed to move the company forward.Leaders should set the standard for workplace pride, Mafe says, by having a system in place to celebrate employees who take on new roles or complete training programs. And it’s also about developing a bit of tolerance for risk, “to be willing to take the risk of investing in a B player, or letting an A player go in order to continue to further their career,” David said, and focus on developing talent with the hope that it will engender company loyalty.Ultimately, employee mobility and engagement should be the natural result of an overall focus on human resources development. “The right managers shouldn't be project managers, they should be people developers and enablers allowing folks to do what they do best,” Warren said. Uribes emphasizes the need to look at career development holistically rather than in terms of lines on a resume. “We believe in the lattice,” Uribes said. “Career growth isn’t always upward mobility.” Too often, David cautions, senior leadership is focused on the numbers, the achievements, and the deadlines. That shortsightedness can cause employees to get frustrated and leave. “Your primary job is to develop people,’ David said. “If you do that, the numbers will take care of themselves.”Katie Chambers is a freelance writer and award-winning communications executive with a lifelong commitment to supporting artists and advocating for inclusion. Her work has been seen in HuffPost, Honeysuckle Magazine, and several printed essay collections, among others, and she has appeared on Cheddar News, iWomanTV, and CBS New York.

Katie Chambers | November 27, 2023