Motivation is a continually developing area of subject knowledge influenced by ongoing research, not least in the field of neuroscience. The subject has been the extensively researched, where many of the significant texts relate to classical theory. These have stood the test of time so far, but they are not necessarily current in terms of showing how the overall understanding of the subject has, and is, evolving.

This resource (Info graphic on Motivation) shows the historical time line of classic theories, but also highlights the more contemporary thinking on the subject.

Since those people working in economic environments are continually looking at the subject of productivity, the more recent published research now covers much wider populations other than white middle class groups. It is not surprising that this topic is given extensive thought and deliberation by Human Resource personnel within organisations in all sectors. Over the last few years motivation has morphed into engagement, where specialist ‘engagement’ officers are endeavouring to increase productivity by setting up engagement programmes that maximise the hours staff spend in their work places.

Their reasons are purely commercial; within other sectors, such as education, the motives are to ensure students maximise their opportunity to learn so that they can reach their full potential. The outcomes are different, but much of the process and thinking sits comfortably in both areas.


What is clear is that there is no one easy answer to the question: “how do you motivate people?” In addition, it becomes ever more self-evident that a particular motivational strategy may work very well for one person but have little value or impact on another. This leads to the second equally valid field of enquiry, which is to establish what are people motivated by, since answering this, helps with the first question.

Over time, the key variables or different motivators have become very clear; even the current research appears to countenance many of the original tested ideas. These are:

  • Financial reward

  • Having status and being recognised

  • Friendship and having a sense of belonging

  • Being in control

  • Freedom to be creative and use self expression

  • Gaining knowledge and expertise

  • Owning a sense of purpose and direction

  • Stability and certainty

  • Being committed to an ultimate purpose

It is the lack of one or more of these factors that are often at the heart of problems that the RESOLVE model and approach is seeking to address.

Financial reward

This isn’t necessarily an approach that managers can take with staff, since there is not always an option of a ‘pay rise’ or bonus. However, the topic is still very important in terms of understanding significant ‘drivers’. Although many people are not necessarily motivated by money, but what the money can buy – such as status, there are those people for whom money is everything: they want the actual money; the ability to spend freely as and when they want; they want privilege that goes with high income; the perks, and to be able to display their trappings of material success. In terms of a strategy, highlighting that in the end the effort will reap ‘rewards’ with a high paying career might prove beneficial.

The issue of financial reward is often as far as many people get when thinking about motivation: in reality, the other drivers are far likely to be the prime energy behind people’s decision to act the way they do.

Having status and being recognised

A cursory glance at the marketing budget of any medium or large sized corporate body will immediately indicate the importance of the brand and brand management. This applies both to individuals as well as organisation. Many individuals have a need for their work to acknowledged, praised and admired; they need to have the respect of their peers, competitors and others with whom they associate.

This group of people like to be rewarded by having a title, being given a special privilege or mark of achievement such as rewards or ‘medals’. Above all they like to be publically acknowledged and thrive on having an enhanced visibility, particularly at public events and ceremonies. Promotion is clearly motivating for them because of the recognition it brings.

‘I cannot get a man to die for money, but I can get him to die for a medal’. Napoleon

At one level within most work sectors this is quite an easy motivator to satisfy since “stars and points” are metaphorically easy to address as good news stories in meeting, newsletters, and social media posts as part of behavioural reward process. Less easy is the issue of allocating status, such as team leader, head of department unless of course it is merited through the recruitment process. However, the important issue is to reward these individuals little and often: it is what they thrive upon. They prefer to have recognition on a regular basis, rather than waiting until the annual appraisal report.

Finally, small constant acts of one to one recognition and praise, simply acknowledging them are for who they are and what they have done, will keep these individuals on track.

Friendship and having a sense of belonging

As human beings, we have an emotional need to be an accepted member of a group, where the group situation could be within our family, our friends, people we work with, or a sports team. It stems from an ‘inherent’ desire we have to belong and be an important part of something greater than ourselves. Maslow suggested that the need to belong was a major source of human motivation; his hierarchy of needs theory implies the need for relationships is greater than simplify having acquaintances or being familiar with others. This need to belong is the need to give, and receive attention to, and from others.

The work of Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary took a similar line; their research suggested that all human beings need a certain minimum quantity of regular, satisfying social interactions.

The flip side of this, which is very pertinent within a Covid rich environment, is the inability to meet this need, which can result in loneliness and mental distress.

For some, the need to belong is very strong and is a major motivator. The opportunity with this category of people is to reward them by involving them as much as possible in aspects of the work: ask their opinion, offer them support, let them support others, get to know them at social activities and events so that you can really get to know people, so they can feel valued and ‘part of something’ and share in some sort of cultural identity.

Being in control

A major driver for some people is to be in the position where they can influence, dominate, make decisions, have significant amounts of responsibility: in effect to have power and to be in control of people, processes, events and how things are done in order to achieve outcomes. For this group, simply being just one of a group of people is a major source of dissatisfaction.

Inevitably, people with this driver tend to gravitate towards progress up the management ladder and seek careers where there is a hierarchical structure. Being so visible, it is not surprising that some of their tangible characteristics include drive, self-confidence and having a sense of vision about what needs to done to get the work completed.

In terms of a motivational strategy, allocating responsibility is highly motivating, whether this is in a formal or informal setting. In addition to hierarchical positions in an organisation, there are ample opportunities to meet this in social clubs, sports activities, social events that need organising, and where someone can take ownership and influence the outcome. This group of people represent an open door when looking for opportunities to ‘delegate’. So, look for opportunities, they will be receptive to the notion of personal development via coaching and mentoring to help them become better equipped to lead and manage others.

Freedom to be creative and use self expression

Walk into any artistic or creative environment, whether part of a professional body such as an architecture, or purely within the artistic environment, and you will find those for whom the ability to design and create is more than just a job, it is where their energy lies. For this group of people, their strongest motivation comes from a need to be creative, to innovate and to take the accolade for their work. They are often the risk takers, those who are willing to break the mould, to come up with new ideas, new and different processes, to create something that wasn’t there before. They thrive on challenges and problems.

The value that this group brings is their resilience, they will frequently be very optimistic, they have a forward thinking, growth mindset, and they can preserve when things don’t go well. Being asked to get involved in any creative problem solving process such as mind mapping, works well as a motivational strategy. They will engage in any solution focus question, or specific structured problem solving techniques. Ensure you give these individuals credit for the new and original thinking or the solutions they have come up with. However, bear in mind, especially within an educational setting, that being given repetitive routine work represents a challenge and can lead to them being demotivated.

Gaining knowledge and expertise