What motivates people to work

Discover what motivates people and how to inspire them

Have you ever thought about what motivates you to work hard? For most of us, the answer goes beyond money or material gains. Asking what motivates people to work – what inspires them to show up each day and truly give their all ultimately gets at a deeper question: What motivates people in the grand scheme of life? People are complex creatures whose behaviors are shaped by their values, beliefs, feelings and experiences as well as basic human needs like growth and connection.

Thankfully, people like Daniel Pink, best-selling business and human behavior author, do think about these things – a lot. And the people at the Royal Society for Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce turned his lecture on things that motivate people into a great animated short.

In this fascinating video, Daniel discusses the results of scientific studies on what drives people to work hard at their jobs. Surprise: It’s not money – it’s tapping into a person’s passions and need for significance, growth and contribution.

The theory and science behind what motivates people

Studying what motivates people to work leads to some unbelievably interesting conclusions. Science points to several realities that go against conventional beliefs. For example, as workers (and consumers), we are actually not as easily given to manipulations as “pop” behavioral economics might have us believe.

The research is clear that passion and creativity work together to produce drive. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience demonstrated that the more inspired participants felt during a given activity, the more activated their amygdala (the emotional center of the brain) became. People are ultimately guided by their own values – not by other people’s attempts to control their behavior or even by external circumstances. This applies whether you want to know what motivates you to work hard, achieve certain goals or change anything about yourself.

So what are people motivated by? We’re all driven by deep needs and desires that we don’t always understand. Motivations can be categorized in two ways: push vs. pull and pain vs. pleasure. Once you understand the factors that fall into each category, you can learn how to inspire people – and yourself.

Push vs. pull

“There’s an art to mastering life. It’s the art of fulfillment. Success without fulfillment is failure.” – Tony Robbins

Push motivations are our obligations in life: We need money for rent or the mortgage. We need to buy groceries. Pull motivations are more compelling – they’re “something so exciting, so attractive, something you want so bad that it can get you up early and keep you up late,” says Tony. They are what motivates people to join the Peace Corps, build a successful business and find true fulfillment.

Pain vs. pleasure

“The secret of success is learning how to use pain and pleasure instead of having pain and pleasure use you.” – Tony Robbins

We would live in an amazing world if the things that motivate people were all positive, empowering push motivations. But to fully answer the question “What are people motivated by?” we cannot ignore pain versus pleasure. The truth is that people are much more motivated to avoid pain than they are to gain pleasure. Instead of responding to punishment systems to (de)incentivize various behaviors, humans respond better to reward systems that incentivize them for engaging their creativity and natural abilities.

what motivates people13 things that motivate people

As long as a worker is obtaining sufficient compensation to find fulfillment, there are plenty of non-monetary drivers that keep workers working hard.

1. Autonomy

In order to feel like a contributing member of the workforce, employees need to feel they are both skillful and trusted on the job. Therefore, empowering a reasonable level of autonomy in the workplace is one of the most effective things that motivate people.

2. Mastery

Whether you are the owner of a small business or an employee of a growing firm, a feeling of mastery on the job is an important part of what motivates people to work. To effectively learn how to inspire people, make sure everyone has the tools and information they need to excel on the job.

3. Purpose

What motivates you to work hard? For almost all of us, the best incentive is one of Tony Robbins’ pivotal business growth concepts: purpose in the workplace. It is not money that ultimately keeps people working hard. What drives people is the sense of purpose and contribution they feel on the job. Invest in employee retention and morale, and you’ll understand not only what motivates people in life but also what creates happy, dedicated employees.

4. Fear

What are people motivated by? You often don’t have to look any further than fear – but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Fear of embarrassment could lead you to practice a presentation until it’s pitch perfect. Fear of letting others down could lead you to work even harder. Just be sure you’re not being ruled by your fears.

5. Opposition

We all know this personality type: you tell them they can’t do something, and they go out and excel at it. Opposition is just the thing that motivates people like this. They don’t want to experience the pain of proving you right. Barbara Corcoran’s ex told her she’d never succeed without him. Then she built a multi-million-dollar real estate empire.

6. Competition

Opposition is proving to yourself that you can do something when others doubt you. Competition is proving that you’re the best, period. They often go hand in hand. People with competitive spirits want to avoid the pain of losing. Bill Gates and Richard Branson are famously competitive – and we’d say it’s worked out for them.

7. Necessity

People have physical needs. We need a roof over our heads. We need food and water. We need to avoid the discomfort that’s caused when we don’t have these things. Often what motivates people is the fear of losing these things. Unlike the factors above, necessity probably isn’t inspiring people to greatness, but if you’re an employer, you can still use it to motivate your team.

8. Certainty

We all need certainty to feel safe and secure and to have people we can depend on. But like necessity, certainty can be what motivates people to achieve less, not more. When you feel secure in your job, you don’t want to take a chance on a more fulfilling role. When you feel safe in your relationship, it’s easier to ignore that you don’t feel fulfilled. Things that motivate people aren’t always positive.

9. Vision

Your vision determines the quality of your life. That’s why it’s one of the strongest things that motivate people. But it’s not always easy to create a vision. It takes introspection, self-awareness and honesty to truly determine what it is that you want so bad, it pulls you toward it.

10. Passion

Without passion, life is boring. We need passion in relationships and passion for our work, family and giving back. It’s what gives us boundless energy. It’s the reason Tony can do six-day, 12-hour events, no problem. He’s pulled to it by his passion.

11. Significance

Things that motivate people can often be traced back to the Six Human Needs. Significance is one of these. In terms of what motivates people, the need for significance manifests in a need for recognition. When people feel validated and valued, they’re inspired to work harder.

12. Growth

The human need for growth is hard-wired into all of us, but some find it more motivating than others. When people are driven by growth, they desire career development and advancement. They want to learn new skills, reach their physical best and discover their peak state.

13. Contribution

Another human need that’s a big factor in what motivates people is contribution. Millennials are often motivated by workplaces that give back. Many tech startups would list “making the world a better place” in their vision statement. Contribution is one of the strongest things that motivate people.

How to motivate others

How would these factors break down for a leader who wants to inspire their team? How can you take massive action to put strategies into place that improve productivity and happiness? Here are few specific things that motivate people, according to science:

  • Host a “hackathon.” In the video, Daniel talks about one company that gives its developers one day per quarter during which they can work on anything they want. That one day of autonomy has led to fixes, new products and strategic innovation on a massive scale.
  • Provide professional development. Numerous studies have found that employees want professional development opportunities and will leave a job if they’re not provided. Give your employees time to get certifications, go to conferences, take classes and improve their mastery.
  • Create a challenge. People who are driven by mastery are often goal-oriented, enjoy completing tasks and appreciate a good challenge as a way to improve their skills. Be sure you’re creating growth plans with SMART goals that are achievable, yet challenging enough to improve mastery.
  • Communicate your vision. To capitalize on purpose as one of the things that motivate people, make sure you’re communicating yours. A solid company vision with its eye on a greater prize – creating positive change and making the world better – will help you attract and retain talented employees.
  • Give back. No matter what motivates you to work hard, giving back universally makes people feel good because it fulfills many of our deepest human needs. Provide opportunities for your employees to work on pro bono projects. Donate your services to those in need. Organize volunteer days. You’ll connect your employees with a purpose – and keep them around.

What motivates people to change?

It’s one matter to be driven in your career and quite another to leverage what motivates you to work hard in order to work on your personal growth. Changing a personality trait or habit can be so daunting that many people resist self-improvement to avoid the challenge. People tend to stick to old, familiar habits unless they have a powerful reason to change. 

What does the research have to say about what motivates people to change? Psychology Today reports that behavioral change occurs along two dimensions: internal/external and positive/negative. These dimensions combine in four distinct ways, each producing a different effect on drive. 

  1. When someone is inspired to change by internal factors (their passions) and positive results (like fulfilled dreams or goals), they are likely to succeed at changing themselves.
  2. When someone is driven by external factors (circumstances) and positive results, they are likely to succeed at changing themselves at least partially.
  3. When someone is inspired to change by internal factors and negative results (like the threat of failure or loss), they might succeed at changing somewhat but risk relapse into undesired behavior.
  4. When someone is inspired to change by external factors and negative results, they are unlikely to succeed at any level of personal change. 

What motivates you to work hard may differ from the specific things that motivate others, but ultimately, what drives people can be traced back to the three main factors: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Great leaders will use their creativity, emotional intelligence and the power of deep listening to uncover what matters most to their team – then enact powerful strategies to get the results they desire.

Team Tony

Team Tony cultivates, curates and shares Tony Robbins’ stories and core principles, to help others achieve an extraordinary life.

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