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.


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