Businesses lose a ton of money each year due to a lack of employee motivation. Employee motivation can be one of the biggest drivers of company success. Interestingly, when we look at the survey data, we can see a clear mismatch between what managers think the issue is, and what workers are trying to get across to their leaders.

A 2018 Gallup survey shows that U.S. businesses lose between $483 billion and $605 billion each year due to a lack of employee motivation. This colossal number is hard to imagine.  The bottom line is that employee motivation is among one of the biggest drivers of company success.  

What is causing a lack of motivation? Interestingly, when we look at the survey data, we can see a clear mismatch between what managers think the issue is, and what workers are trying to get across to their leaders.  This disconnect further exacerbates the issue creating more employee apathy and attrition.

In the survey, a majority of managers cite a lack of clear communication and co-worker conflicts as one of the top factors hindering productivity, while employees were concerned with fair compensation and meaningful work. There is a clear need for leadership teams to better understand how to connect with employees and create an engaged culture deeply invested in the company’s mission. 

What Causes Workers To Be Less Motivated?

One of the main killers of employee motivation is a rigid, non-personal work structure. People have an uncanny ability to ruthlessly pursue projects that they care about and are motivated to complete, but without the proper drivers, you will never unlock this potential. 

According to research by Reward Gateway, the top reasons for employees feeling unmotivated included:

  • Poor management (46%) 
  • Feeling invisible or undervalued (43%) 
  • Boring or unsatisfying work (43%)  
  • Lack of recognition (42%)

This research reveals some of the main missing motivational pieces to the puzzle that companies often overlook.

To highlight some common motivation killers, let’s take a look at a popular worker trend - remote work. While many popular news stories will highlight how remote workers are more motivated and happier, this trend is starting to lose momentum. In a survey conducted by authors Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor, it was found that remote workers were actually less motivated in a majority of new remote work programs - and it’s not for the reasons you’d think. 

Is it due to emotional stress? Lazy workers? OR - is it due to a lack of understanding of how to truly BE a remote worker?  In order to be effective remote workers, employees need to have the tools and guidance in place to foster a workforce that is:

  • Independent
  • Organized
  • Tech-savvy

Or in other words, prepared.  One of the illusions of this new remote work trend is the assumption that it always improves motivation and productivity in employees. As we’ve seen, this is simply not the case.

But why? One of the reasons is that remote work in the past was a choice that employees had, not a requirement, as is the case in many modern workplaces. This choice gave them freedom - but it turns out this was only an illusion. Workers in remote work environments are often missing out on the joys of problem-solving as a team, making collective decisions with people in the same room, and having the freedom to pursue a goal by using unique personal skills. 

In this situation, business leaders can’t just sit back and hope their remote employees’ Zoom fatigue, work-life balance issues, or feelings of isolation fade away with time. You need to take action! You need to design a routine and culture that fosters innate motivation and empowers workers to do their best. 

How To Get Employees to Go "All In" 

The first step is to understand the true drivers of motivation. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink explores what science says motivates individuals and how organizations often do the opposite.   He distills the recipe for motivating high performance to three ingredients: autonomy (the desire to be self-directed), mastery (the urge to get better skills) and purpose (the desire to do something that has meaning and is important). 

Employees need the joys of problem-solving and autonomy to attack the problem. In order to get there, management needs to ensure crystal-clear objectives are in place while helping employees understand how they will be evaluated. 

Be mindful that in many modern work environments, motivation is complicated by the fact that:

  • repetitive work processes become less engaging;
  • lack of connection can breakdown communication and erode trust; and
  • physical distance and workflow difficulties contribute to a weakening of purpose.

In all of your employee engagement activities, be willing to be creative and experiment with ways to mitigate these factors.  Now let’s take a closer look at purpose along with play, experimentation, and competition.

Employees Need Purpose

Need access to colleagues and mentors that motivate them, show them new ways to succeed from home. Cannot allow remote workers to become stagnate, unfocused, and repetitive. 

Make sure every single person on their teams feels like they have a challenge that they can help solve, challenges that add value by driving the company towards one or more objectives.  This is best enabled by helping employees understand where they fit within the big picture, and how they can really add value. This requires patience, experimentation and guidance from leadership. 

Additionally, employees need channels that enable them to be visible and share ideas within the organization. Digital tools can create significant opportunities for recognition from both leadership and colleagues, which can help mitigate feelings of alienation or isolation and show employees that they are valued. 

Career development is another major driver of purpose and motivation. Employees need to understand that you have their long-term success in mind. They need to feel like they are growing, learning, and progressing somewhere positive within their role. These long-term goals need to be in line with the current expectations within their daily routine. 

Work vs Play

Play is essential if you want to boost innovation and creative output. Traditionally, play at work has been associated with small talk around the proverbial water cooler, grabbing lunch with a colleague, or off-site team-building activities. While these activities are good, they don’t help to spark any new habits at work. 

Play is really about our innate learning instincts - it’s related to curiosity and encouraging employees to experiment with and explore new solutions to problems. Warning signs that a lack of play could be undermining your employees’ motivation may include silent or abandoned chat tools, poor attendance or participation in meetings, employee attrition/apathy, and few or no signs of significant creativity or innovation.  

The trick is to incorporate game design into learning and up-skilling your employees. Activities such as retreats, team building, competitions, and other “social” activities really don’t do much for inspiring new, creative ways to work or how to feel more deeply inspired in work processes. 


Building off the last point, one of the most effective ways to find new, effective methods and processes for your workforce is to encourage an atmosphere of experimentation.  It's not always about focusing on the tasks themselves!  Try to leave some room each week for open-ended experimentation and adaptive work that enables employees to work under less pressure and find new ways to succeed and provide value.  Sometimes, the most transformative ideas are discovered during these free-thought sessions when employees are free to work towards business goals in their own way using their own imagination and processes.  

Sometimes, creativity is simply putting yourself in the right situations and waiting for luck to strike.  This is why experimentation and a sense of autonomous exploration and decision-making can be incredible (yet unpredictable) drivers of innovation. Employees can serve as valuable sources of knowledge on fun and innovative new ways to work. Leadership should not always feel the need to brainstorm revolutionary new ways of working from scratch. These developments take time and cooperation. 

It is important to understand, however, that your employees will need your help to do this. Ask them: Where can we deliver amazing service to our customers? What’s broken that our team can fix? What will drive growth even in a time of fear? Why are these problems critical, valuable, and interesting?” This will help them understand that you value their opinions as well as their long-term personal growth and success. 

Employees are invaluable in their capacity to help you find creative new ways to work which can then be tested, evaluated, and implemented. Ask employees about what they might want to try or experiment with and go on this journey with them. Together. 


Competition has the ability to motivate a drive to succeed and develop out-of-box thinking capacities. It promotes recognition, employee connection, the ability to be heard, creative - and perhaps most importantly - the ability to have some fun! Some ideas for competitions could be digital idea tanks or shark tank-like pitch competitions where employees pitch new ideas or processes to colleagues as well as leadership. 

When enabling competition, the key is to start small and simple and just allow employees to go through the process. As these competitions are completed and employees undergo the gauntlet, they will undoubtedly have feedback and additional ideas to help you improve the process and maximize the creative output you get from employees. 

Purpose Promotes Connection

At the end of the day, purpose promotes connection. As the old saying goes, two brains are better than one! Giving employees more trust and freedom to experiment, compete, and be creative with each other and with management will work wonders for their drive and the level of innovation your organization will be able to achieve.

Curious about running an employee competition for your organization?  We'd love to talk to you about it and help you get started. 

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