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.


Fostering Workplace Belonging: Overcoming Barriers and Cultivating Inclusive Culture

Sometimes it can take live theater to get vulnerable in the workplace. Partnering with Pillsbury House Theatre in the Twin Cities, Mortenson, a leader in the commercial construction, real estate development, and renewable energy industries, helps show employees what’s happening in the organization through different scenes.The theater’s initiative called Breaking Ice included the theater team interviewing members of the Mortenson team. “They learn your language, and they learn your initiatives, and then they actually act it out in front of you,” said Joffrey Wilson vice president of diversity, equity & inclusion at Mortenson. “It’s a way of showing to everyone what's really happening in your organization.The result? It’s been impactful. “It has been a different way to build a sense of what equity it is,” Wilson said. As one of five panelists during a session at From Day One’s conference in Minneapolis, Wilson spoke about creative ways they help break down barriers and develop an inclusive workplace. Brandt Williams of the Minnesota Public Radio moderated.Live theater is only one way Mortenson is actively creating an inclusive culture. They are also branching out and partnering with new sources for recruiting so they can reach a wider audience. They’re also partnering with organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers, the National Society of Hispanic Professionals, and more to bring in more diverse talent. Ultimately, Wilson added, DEI is never a one-and-done event or training. It’s a state of mind that businesses must adopt and be consistently looking for ways to make their company culture better. Where You Are, Where You’re GoingIn an organization’s quest to cultivate inclusion, the best place to start is taking stock of where you are so you can figure out where you need to go next. That has been the case for Marvin, the century-old manufacturer of premium window and door solutions.“When we say culture, what do we mean? What does that include?” asked panelist Renee Rice, senior director of communications and culture at Marvin. “We did some pretty extensive research to identify not only where our culture was strong, but also where those opportunities were with our culture.”From there, they looked at their five-year business strategy to answer some key questions: “What does our business need from our culture? What does our business need from our people in order to be successful?”From that research and from goal-setting, Marvin has layered the two to create a roadmap that centers on getting employees to think differently and work differently, all in support of that business strategy. This has helped them to define what culture at Marvin is and what they want it to become.The panelists spoke to the topic "Fostering Workplace Belonging: Overcoming Barriers and Cultivating Inclusive Culture" at From Day One's conference in MinneapolisBetter communication is one big one. “When you’re talking about establishing a DEI strategy,” Rice said “when you're talking about modeling certain behaviors, any one of these topics can have the tendency to fall flat unless there is strong communication with your employees about why we're doing this. Specifically, what behaviors do we want to see modeled?”Focusing on inclusion will help companies to retain employees, she added, as will offering coaching and mentoring to help employees develop skills. When they feel a company is investing in them, they feel included, she says. Making Space HumannessPanelist Bethany Kurbis, senior executive coach & consultant at The Bailey Group, shared her unique journey into HR. It began with her work in peaceful conflict resolution in Southern Sudan using the “Theater of the Oppressed.” This experience highlighted the importance of creating space for human messiness and complex, nuanced conversations. Later transitioning into HR, Kurbis found that the best leaders are those who make room for difficult conversations and deeply listen to their employees' motivations and needs. This approach, which she described as creating space for humaneness, has been foundational to her coaching methodology. “What we’re really talking about here is behavior change,” Kurbis said. “And behavior change is slow.” Creating the space for that change is key in helping your team feel included and get to the root of what’s going on at an organization. So, how to facilitate that behavior change?“As HR leaders, you understand how busy your schedules or calendars are,” she said. “Creating that space to have the difficult conversations to seek understanding so that we can build everything we've already heard about is a good starting point.” Employees must feel psychological safety in order to feel inclusion. “The ability to fail in front of people and have it be okay, you can still show up your job, you can still be a part of your team, you can still succeed, learn from that failure,” Kurbis said. Her advice is to help people pause, create space, take a deep breath, and allow humans to be human. Employee Resource GroupsThere are many dimensions of diversity, according to panelist Michelle Anderson, AVP, global learning, development and diversity at AmTrust Financial Services. Which is why employee resource groups help people to feel included.At AmTrust, ERG’s are completely employee led so they can take ownership and have control over where they go with them.“Anyone can come to us and say, ‘we’re interested in creating this group based on this demographic, this ability, this characteristic,’ and then they can work with us to build that,” she said. Being less formal helps employees feel more comfortable in those settings. But the groups also shed light on what her leader calls the “Diversity Wheel.” There is a lot of depth to diversity, and we tend to assume rather than seek to understand. “We bring the diversity wheel together to help people see that even if we might look the same, we’re not the same,” Anderson said. “There are different avenues of diversity. Everybody's experiences are different. So we introduce that and incorporate that in all of the things that we do from a DEI perspective as well.”As a company that has acquired companies to become what it is today, the first priority was to identify what being a leader meant to them. “We started with the middle manager layer and said, ‘as a leader, we want you to be intentional. And what does intentional mean? Intentional for us means you’re curious and aware, it means you are focused on learning more about the individual, helping them with their development, and having a clear vision, and then also being authentic and empathetic.’”Getting very clear on defining these roles has been key, Anderson says. From there they created a leadership development program so they could help new leaders, emerging executives, and everyone in between put their best foot forward for the company while also helping develop a solid company culture.  Integrating Inclusive Leadership into Daily PracticesIt takes practice to get good at anything, and while training and extra meetings about inclusion can be helpful, panelist Siham Adous, senior director, strategic accounts & partnerships at Praxis Labs, emphasized the importance of working it into everyday work.“What we’ve seen to be the most effective strategies to really drive long term impact is understanding that managers are busy,” she said. “These training moments have to be integrated into their talent development moment so that we’re not talking about inclusive leadership as standalone. We’re talking about some of the fundamental foundational skills to just help you do your job better, and ultimately drive higher engaged and higher performing teams.”The challenge then becomes how to create resources for people leaders in the moments that they actually need them in their flow of work, Adous says. It’s all about awareness, but also continual practice. “In the same way that no one here would go to the gym one time and say, I am now fit, you have to go multiple times and really build the muscle of inclusive leadership.”At Praxis Labs, they look at immersive experiences as a way to do that in an effective way. But be sure to take a data-backed approach, and also ask for feedback from your team so you get a true sense of how people feel about their work culture.“We have biannual pulse surveys. We're only an organization of 35, but it's still so critical that we hear everyone's voice and ensure that some of the challenges are addressed in real time. Even taking that data backed approach to what we're doing internally has been huge.”Carrie Snider is a Phoenix-based journalist and marketing copywriter.

Carrie Snider | June 17, 2024

Hiring 10,000 Employees a Year With an Eye on the Horizon

If your company struggles with finding a few new employees every year, how would you like to try for thousands? That daunting number isn’t too much for Jason Grosz, Head of Global Talent Acquisition for St. Paul-based clean-water giant Ecolab. During a fireside chat titled “Hiring 10,000 Employees a Year With an Eye on the Horizon,” Grosz talked about how his company recruits workers for its businesses around the world while at the same time investing in its future workforce. Grosz was interviewed by Patrick Kennedy, business reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune at From Day One’s Minneapolis conference.“I once heard the expression ‘glocal’ when it comes to talent acquisition – global with a local twist,” says Grosz, a 19-year Ecolab veteran. “What we’ve tried to do is create a standard structure for hiring, and allow a local version of that to be executed.”Jason Grosz, Head of Global Talent Acquisition at Ecolab spoke at From Day One's Minneapolis conference. He was interviewed by Patrick Kennedy, right, Business Reporter at the Star Tribune,Part of finding good employees is presenting your company as a good place to work. But Grosz points out that just saying so doesn’t make it so, and prospective talent can often see through the hype.“We talk about our employee value proposition very intentionally,” he says. “But if you don't deliver on the promise, then it doesn't really mean anything. People figure that out. And that gets out.”Selling the company culture to employment prospects is one thing, but continuing to provide value to workers once they’re on board can be another. To that end, Ecolab tends to match its number of annual hires with a roughly equivalent number of promotions, says Grosz.“We’re actually moving people more than we’re hiring people,” he says. “We use Career Hub and Workday. We’re trying to build a visible internal capability and opportunity marketplace for our people. Our CEO will sift through different talent reviews and hear from our businesses: What’s the landscape of talent? What are the needs? Where are the gaps?”As a measure of how effective such extra effort is, Ecolab’s retention numbers tend to hover around 85 percent, Grosz says. Part of the reason lies with an aggressive approach toward acquisition and adoption of new technologies.“We’re looking for more people in that analytics world, and we’re looking for more people who are comfortable in the A.I. technology space,” says Grosz. “You want people who understand biopharma and bioscience. So we've always had this need to find these distinct, unique types of talent.”Dan Heilman is a writer and editor based in St. Paul, Minn.

Dan Heilman | June 13, 2024

Establishing a Well-Being Culture That Actually Works

Wellness has always existed as part of employee health concerns, but the pandemic hyper-focused our attention on the importance of well-being and the needs of workers. Yet, in an era of hybrid work, tighter profit margins, and AI, the range of well-being needs are challenging to meet. Companies are having to learn to do more with less but not lose sight of their employees well-being.“Two things have to be true for a benefit to be used. Number one, the benefit itself has to be designed in a revenue model perspective, meaning the cost has to be incentivized for your employees to use them as much as they possibly can. If the company has a business model where they make more money when less people use it, it will not get used. The second thing I'll say is that we have to focus on the science of behavior change," said Elena Gambon, chief strategy and growth officer at First Stop Health.A panel of business leaders came together to discuss the ins and outs of well-being, and how to create a culture of wellness at From Day One’s Dallas conference. The discussion was moderated by Will Maddox, senior writer for D CEO magazine and editor of D CEO Healthcare.“We’ve given so much permission to say I'm overwhelmed or I’m worried about my well-being or my workload, yet, have we equipped the people that have to handle that?” said Dennie Laney, VP of HR at Associa.Gambon says that at First Stop Health, they use behavioral scientist B.J. Fogg's model for human behavior: B=MAP (Behavior ‘B’ happens when Motivation ‘M’, Ability ‘A’, and a Prompt ‘P’ come together at the same moment).The first thing people need, Gambon says, is motivation. “The pain or the pleasure to act has to be high enough for someone to actually make a change. Second is the ability needs to be there. And for us, that means the service needs to cost $0. For the patient, the time that it takes to get to talk to one of our doctors needs to be minutes. Not hours. Not days. The third prong of that stool is promoting. If you’re not constantly reminding people that you exist in creative ways that resonate with them, no one will remember that it’s there.”Greg Miller, SVP, talent management and human resources, at AccentCare says this idea of prompting and promoting is a good one, but when push comes to shove, wellness gets sacrificed. "I think one real challenge for us and others is how do you really tie wellness and flexibility to tangible business results in ways in which we can talk about them as retention drivers, as attraction drivers."Hope Gladney, global lead of client relationships at AceUp, says you have to meet the individual where they are. “A lot of these programs really need to be done within the flow of work. So I think we really need to understand what it is that each individual needs, and try to tailor benefits that are actually going to meet them in the area where they're going to achieve the most benefit for them personally.”But, Gladney points out, the benefit has to also relate to the overall success of the organization.Covid was especially hard on the healthcare industry because they were the frontline, and there was a lot of panic and silent hardships in the beginning. “A lot of people left the industry because of that,” Miller said. “What we’ve tried to do within healthcare is to create the space to say I'm not okay, I’m scared and I need some help. We’ve tried to better leverage the resources we already had in place like employee assistance programs.”Healthcare is hard and there are still more questions than answers when it comes to supporting a 24/7 industry and social need, says Miller. The 24/7 reality of healthcare doesn't just apply to paid professionals, though. Being a caregiver is something that extends to unpaid work, the family, and your extended support network.Gambon says there’s a full spectrum of caregiving that’s invisibly happening behind the scenes with every healthcare worker.The executive panelists discussed the topic "Establishing a Well-Being Culture That Actually Works" in conversation mdoerated by Will Maddox of D CEO Magazine“All of this unpaid labor that predominantly female identifying individuals [do], not always in the home, whether it's to care for a neighbor or a family member or an aging parent or their own kiddos, who are well or special needs – there's just a full spectrum of caregiving that is happening invisibly behind the scenes. With almost every single employee. How do you make sure that anything you provide to your employees across the board is not only equitable, but available to all members of the family? However the employee defines family?” Gambon said.Understanding your work culture means also understanding your workers and who they are. Meaning there is no one size fits all approach to well-being. Gladney says you have to have self-awareness and understand your own triggers and biases. “When you take an inclusive approach to it, it’s first recognizing that everyone’s well-being journey is uniquely theirs.”Michelle Howard, the diversity and inclusion director at Vizient, says it’s about knowing what kind of organization you have. “People like to say, 'Oh, we have a culture of blank.' But you accidentally created a culture of blank. So understanding truly what your culture is. And then determining, is that what you want? And if it's not, it takes time to move that.”“Often when we think about creating inclusive benefits, we give people what we think is inclusive, and we don't ask them what they want or need. As hard as it is to invest the time and the money to listen and gather data, it is the most important step in creating something of value. I like to say that diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, the ‘D’ is both for diversity as well as data. Because it is a science, and a proven science. The more you focus on the individual, the better off they will be,” said Gambon.“Everybody knows the golden rule, right? Treat others how you want to be treated? It is the platinum rule. And you have to tap in to understand what that is," Howard said.Matthew Koehler is a freelance journalist and licensed real estate agent based in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in Greater Greater Washington, The Washington Post, The Southwester, and Walking Cinema, among others.

Matthew Koehler | June 11, 2024