How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation

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Here is an excerpt from an article written by Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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In a recent strategy meeting we attended with the leaders of a Fortune-500 company, the word “culture” came up 27 times in 90 minutes. Business leaders believe a strong organizational culture is critical to success, yet culture tends to feel like some magic force that few know how to control. So most executives manage it according to their intuition.

We’ve found that answering three questions can help transform culture from a mystery to a science: 1) How does culture drive performance? 2) What is culture worth? 3) What processes in an organization affect culture? In this article, we address each of these to show how leaders can engineer high-performing organizational cultures — and measure their impact on the bottom line.

How does culture drive performance?

After surveying over 20,000 workers around the world, analyzing 50 major companies, conducting scores of experiments, and scouring the landscape of academic research in a range of disciplines, we came to one conclusion: Why we work determines how well we work.

One 2013 study illustrates this well. Researchers asked almost 2,500 workers to analyze medical images for “objects of interest.” They told one group that the work would be discarded; they told the other group that the objects were “cancerous tumor cells.” The workers were paid per image analyzed. The latter group, or “meaning” group, spent more time on each image, earning 10% less, on average, than the “discard” group — but the quality of their work was higher. Reshaping the workers’ motive resulted in better performance.

Academics have studied why people work for nearly a century, but a major breakthrough happened in the 1980s when professors Edward Deci and Richard Ryan from the University of Rochester distinguished the six main reasons why people work. We built on their framework and adapted it for the modern workplace. The six main reasons people work are: play, purpose, potential, emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia.

The work of many researchers has found that the first three motives tend to increase performance, while the latter three hurt it. We found that the companies most famous for their cultures — from Southwest Airlines to Trader Joe’s — maximize the good motives, while minimizing the bad ones.

o Play is when you are motivated by the work itself. You work because you enjoy it. A teacher at play enjoys the core activities of teaching — creating lesson plans, grading tests, or problem solving how to break through to each student. Play is our learning instinct, and it’s tied to curiosity, experimentation, and exploring challenging problems.

o Purpose is when the direct outcome of the work fits your identity. You work because you value the work’s impact. For example, a teacher driven by purpose values or identifies with the goal of educating and empowering children.

o Potential is when the outcome of the work benefits your identity. In other words, the work enhances your potential. For example, a teacher with potential may be doing his job because he eventually wants to become a principal.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Lindsay McGregor is the co-author of the New York Times bestselling book, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation, as well as the CEO and co-founder of Vega Factor, a startup that helps organizations transform their cultures. Previously, Lindsay led projects at McKinsey & Company. She received her MBA from Harvard Business School, and her B.A. from Princeton.

Neel Doshi is the co-author of the New York Times bestselling book, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation, and co-founder of Vega Factor, a startup that helps organizations transform their cultures. Previously, Neel was a partner at McKinsey & Company. He received his MBA from Wharton, and B.S. from MIT.

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