How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation

What motivates employees?

Only one-third of U.S. employees are engaged at work, and more than half are actively searching for new job opportunities.

Could it be that half of American workers are underpaid and looking for more lucrative jobs? That’s possible, but the fact that two out of three employees are disengaged points to deeper, cultural issues for many companies.

Only one-third of U.S. employees are engaged at work. Click To Tweet

Too many executives see culture as a mysterious, intangible power that’s difficult to harness. But it instantly becomes less mysterious if you can define it. So, let’s define company culture as the attitudes, motivations, and interactions that emerge as a result of an organization’s policies and processes.

That’s an important distinction—motivations are shaped by processes, not the other way around. When companies look at culture through that lens—as a quality that can be engineered—it suddenly starts to feel tangible.

SEE ALSO: The Growth Divide Between Employers and Employees

Why People Work

The good news is that psychologists—Edward Deci and Richard Ryan—have identified six reasons why people work. These six motivating factors are: Purpose, potential, play, emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia. Organizations should consider these factors when crafting policies and processes.


When the employee identifies and values the impact of their work. They feel that their individual performance has a larger purpose, whether that’s related to the company’s big-picture goals or how their work affects society, the planet, etc.


The employee feels that the work benefits their long-term goals; sets them on a path towards greater responsibilities, promotions, or their “dream job.”


The employee is fulfilled by the actual work itself. It ignites their passion and curiosity. They enjoy their day-to-day tasks, activities, and responsibilities.

Emotional Pressure

When the employee feels threatened by outside forces, whether that’s pressure from family or peers, fear of being perceived as a failure, fear of disappointing managers or coworkers. They work to avoid emotional pain.

Economic Pressure

The employee is motivated by financial factors, whether that’s desiring a raise or fear of losing their job/source of income. The problem is that this isn’t about the work itself, it’s about reward/punishment.


“An object at rest stays at rest. An object in motion stays in motion.” The employee works because that’s what they do every day. They don’t have any specific goals or reason why they’re doing the work. Professional inertia leads to stagnation, not innovation or growth.

The first three motivating factors are positive, while the latter three are negative. Employees that are motivated by positive factors are typically more productive and engaged in their work. And companies with growth-oriented cultures tend to foster purpose, potential, and play.

Employees that are motivated by positive factors are typically more productive and engaged. Click To Tweet

Regular feedback and check-ins can help to engrain all three factors in your company culture.

Conversations with managers encourage employees to 1) Connect to the why in their work 2) Continue learning and developing professionally and 3) Develop a sense of play—where people feel comfortable thinking outside-the-box, tackling new challenges, and taking creative approaches to old problems.