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How to Motivate Employees with Meaning

November 26, 2016

How to Motivate Employees with Meaning

Learning how to motivate employees is tough...

As leaders, we are always looking for the best way to motivate our teams against our collective organizational goals. We want to have individuals identify with those goals to the point they make them their own. This is no easy task. In their book, The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer identify three key influences on motivation. The first and the most impactful of the three is making progress against meaningful work. Folks want to participate in work that has meaning. Take that away and you will find employees less motivated to pursue those collective goals. Likewise, if your team experiences setbacks instead of consistent progress, they will also find themselves less committed and engaged.

So, what can leaders do? Well, if you want folks to attach meaning to the work, you’ll need more than contingent rewards. In fact, you’ll need to find ways to inspire them so that they attach meaning to the work for themselves. You cannot make the work meaningful by declaring it to be so! So, what does inspiration look like? Well, for one thing it needs to be authentic, innovative, and to a large degree spontaneous. For some leaders, this might be recognizing efforts of a team or individual in a staff meeting. It could be a handwritten note sharing your appreciation. It could be highlighting the work of an employee as a model. Of course, the minute this becomes a quid quo pro, you lose the efficacy of the act.

One very creative solution I recently became aware of is handing out a coin of appreciation. For those with a military background, you might be well aware of this tradition. The coin serves as a way of saying thank you for contributions of individuals to the team. The coin is a small token but can have a significant impact on motivation. If you are interested in learning more, I would suggest taking a look at On their site, the founders put it aptly: “While the challenge coin was just one of the tools that I used as an Army officer, it is in my opinion among the most effective. Unlike a trophy, plaque, or even a medal, troops often keep their coin with them at all times as a reminder of the unit's appreciation. Receiving a coin is a deeply meaningful experience - it's a ‘thank you’ made solid and handed from a leader to a deserving team member.” What a great way to inspire folks, celebrate the progress they are making in pursuing goals, and communicate the meaningfulness of the work to you as a leader.

Read more about how to motivate employees in our blog!

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