We know what organizations think motivates people. But the research says money isn’t an effective motivator. By the 1960s researchers were showing that paying employees a miserly wage or salary is an effective way to destroy their motivation, but once you are paying them enough, any additional dollars won’t add much to their drive to succeed.

But the news for leaders and trainers is good. Research reveals motivators that cost nothing, are simple to use and provide us with a valuable checklist to make our training more effective.

Researchers working with American and South Korean students* have shown that even across two such very different cultures, four motivating needs stand out: self-esteem, relatedness (the need to feel connected to other people) autonomy and competence. That study, in 2001, and others, suggest that the four top motivators are probably universal – applying to all cultures, though not necessarily every person we train.

The only difference between cultures was the order of the top four motivators. The motivational champion in the United States was self-esteem. In South Korea it was relatedness. Money and luxury were at the bottom of the list of 10 possible motivators they tested, in both cultures and in every study they conducted. Abraham Maslow’s widely-taught self actualization ranked seventh and the researchers put it in the ‘nice-to-have’ category, rather than a real need.
The universal motivators overlap to a degree, so that when you are meeting, for instance, your trainees’ need for self-esteem, you may also be helping them feel competent. We can use the universal motivators in a focused way as we design and deliver our training programmes.


The need for self-respect. The feeling that we are a worthy person.
The need to feel that we belong. Feeling that we have regular contact with people who care about us.
The need to be independent. Feeling that we have choices and control over our own actions.
The need to be effective. Feeling that we are capable.


When we acknowledge our trainees’ achievements and contributions, praise them and genuinely consult them, we are using the Western world’s most powerful motivator. The challenge is to do it consistently and in the most appropriate ways.

Many trainers expect that mature adults would be less concerned about their self-esteem than young people, but the research says that’s not so. Self-esteem is a big issue for adults as they learn new skills. It’s essential to protect it. That doesn’t mean removing any possibility of failure or telling them they are performing well when they are not. They would find that demeaning, but they need us to focus on their mistakes, not on them.

Assume that their setbacks are simply evidence that they need to work on a particular skill, not a commentary on their potential. Your assumption that they have the potential can come out in subtle ways that will build their self-esteem far more than anything they might interpret as flattery.

Learning should be a social event. Even if you are providing individual coaching or mentoring, your relationship is a useful part of the motivation. Clearly, making a special effort to be welcoming, sociable and supportive will be more effective than treating the encounter like an examination or a briefing. It’s such a powerful motivator in both Western and Eastern cultures we should be looking for opportunities to make working and learning together a social, not just intellectual experience.

It takes trust. We take a risk when we give away control to someone who is still developing a skill. Encourage your reports or mentees to devise, or play a significant role in developing, a program of continuous development and review it together regularly.

Invite their scepticism. Encourage them to question out loud. If that seems risky, think of Toyota. It thrives on just that principle of inviting everyone to challenge ideas. You are respecting and welcoming your reports' autonomy.

In training, invite them to contribute their work and life experiences to the learning process. If your group includes an expert on a particular topic, draw on her expertise. If you know that some participants have particular interests, doubts or experiences, call on them for a contribution.

We can use the human need for autonomy to make work and learning from new experiences more motivating.

More than 40 years ago Frederick Herzberg, professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University, was telling employers that most of the ways they motivated staff were based on myths. He was the researcher who argued that wages are only a source of de-motivation. Real motivation comes from the intrinsic rewards of the work itself. There’s a parallel for us as we design activities for the training room. Employers, said Herzberg, should be finding ways to give their employees more control and responsibility.

Here’s an example. A few years ago our office administrator was looking for more responsibility. We made her our buyer of non-capital items. She had been ordering some office supplies, but other people were doing that too. Now she was in charge of buying every non-capital item. It was a clearly-defined responsibility and she was making the decisions. We were amazed at how quickly she adapted the skills she had learned shopping for a family of six to find impressive bargains in airfares, accommodation, hire cars and stationery, and negotiate deals with conference centres. She stayed with us for seven years.

I remember being tentative about awarding chocolate fish to adults in my workshops. (The fish is marshmallow – it’s a New Zealand thing.) Would they think it childish? If they did they certainly didn’t care. ‘What do we win if we beat everyone else?’ one young executive called out, his eyes narrowed as if to indicate that it had better be good. ‘A chocolate fish’ I said. ‘How’s that for an incentive?’ Everyone sat up with grins on their faces. ‘Ah, now you’re getting serious!’ I’ve had groups of engineers, administrators and planners competing with passion – arguing for their alternative answer, protesting loudly, laughing, punching the air, shouting,‘Yes!’ They didn’t only want to be competent, but the best - and have everyone know it.

The research tells us that adults are less inclined than children or adolescents to learn for the sake of learning. They want to see the relevance, particularly how they could use it. Unless people have given up, their need to feel competent will be one of your greatest allies as you help them develop their skills. You can exploit it by ensuring that they know how each idea or skill will help them be more competent in their work or on the sports field.

Four universal motivators. They cost nothing but provide more focus on what really motivates adults to achieve and learn.

*K M Sheldon et al 'What is satisfying about satisfying events? Testing 10 candidate psychological needs' Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Feb 2001,Vol. 80 No. 2

Author's Bio: 

Ralph Brown is the author of 'The Village That Could - 15 ways to develop your resilience' and 'Success at work and at home' which is based on the framework of emotional intelligence.

Ralph is managing director of Media Associates, a training company based in Christchurch and Wellington, New Zealand.

Read Ralph's blog and information about his books at www.skillset.co.nz.