Executive Careers Blog

The #1 Motivator

What's the best way to motivate people, based on recent research? We'll get to that in a moment. But first—is this even a smart question?

Not really. The question assumes a one-size-fits-all, best solution. That's a common trap when problem-solving. Consider nutrition.

Years ago, at the first sign of a cold, I took massive amounts of vitamin C. "It's a wonder drug," said many people, including the famous chemist Linus Pauling. He'd won several Nobel Prizes.

I figured if I took enough vitamin C, I'd prevent colds. Or minimize their effects. Or win a Nobel Prize.

Then, one day, my doctor nixed the idea. "There's no research supporting it," he said.

I was very disappointed. "Can't I just take it for the placebo effect?" I asked.

Apparently not.

Back to motivation. The #1 motivator, it seems, is not recognition. Or money. Or even vitamin C.

It's progress.

That's according to Harvard business professor, Teresa M. Amabile who asked several hundred knowledge workers to keep daily diaries (HBR, Jan-Feb 2010).

It's hard to argue against progress. You rarely hear employees admit the following:

Manager: How's it going?

Employee: I can honestly say that I got nothing done today whatsoever. Zilch!

Manager: Sorry to hear that.

Employee: Don't be. I've never felt so motivated in my entire life.

Progress is good. Actually, the whole point of work, as I understand it, is to make progress.

(Motivation is the means to that end; the real trick is staying motivated when there's no end in sight.)

But here's the point: What motivates you, may not motivate me. Also, what motivates you today, may not work tomorrow.

And even if something doesn't motivate you at all, let's say progress, or money, or vitamin C, the lack of that something can de-motivate you (see research by Frederick Herzberg).

Tip: Let's take a multi-vitamin approach to motivation—try different nutrients.

p.s. My doctor, by contrast, is moving in the opposite direction. "Vitamin D is the only vitamin I currently recommend," he says.

And I believe him. Well, I figure we know a lot more about vitamins now.

That's progress.

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Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (  Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

Comments?  Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com