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Motivation and Morale


“He just does the bare minimum. We all get the same compensation and the same raises. Sometimes it’s hard for me to stay motivated when those of us who are busting our butts are treated the same as the people who just show up for a paycheck.” This person was an ideal worker. He was intelligent, competent, always working on continued learning, easy-going, and a great team player. After several years at the company with no real cultural shift, he moved to an organization that optimized his skills and rewarded him accordingly. No one wants to feel used, even hard-working, easy-going employees. Yet, that is exactly what organizations do if they do not have some form of rewarding greatness. Praise in front of the team, increased perks such as schedule flexibility or leave time, title changes, and financial compensation all work. Companies who strive to keep everyone at an equal level inherently create an unfair situation that will erode performance to the lowest common denominator.

Dr. Tricia: “What is your primary role? What are the expectations?”

Employee: “I don’t know. I never received a job description, and it feels like I have two different bosses. It’s frustrating because I want to do well, but I keep getting mixed messages about what I am supposed to be doing.”

Many people WANT to succeed. They want to know that they are contributing value and meeting the expectations of their supervisors. Clear expectations means measurable objectives and project prioritization. This clarity helps both the employee and the organization. The employee know what s/he needs to do to “win,” and the organization is better equipped to deal with under-performing employees.

“The organization has just started this initiative. I have no idea how they expect us to follow through on it. We are under-financed and under-staffed already.”

Usually, employees will try to meet the new requirements but struggle to stay motivated because they know that they do not have the tools to do the job. Additionally, they lose respect for the leaders who have not done their research.

This complaint is made by employees across organizations, ranging from the most basic starting position to top-level supervisors. Someone has a great idea, and it is voted into action without due diligence on the resources available. I am struck by the number of times the person making the complaint knows exactly what would be needed to give the idea wings. Going the extra mile to involve employees in the planning process increases their ownership and the odds that the initiative will be successful.

“They say ____; they do ____.”

Example: The company’s mission statement comments on integrity and honesty with customers, but the the daily operations show the opposite. It is better for a company not to espouse moral values than to verbalize them and behaviorally dismiss them. Doing so creates a loss of respect for the leaders and lowers employee buy-in.

Ryan was a hard-working, dedicated counselor. He worked with children who had been traumatized. Every day, for 8 hours, he worked with kids and families who were troubled by sexual abuse, drugs or violence. Ryan’s work week was highly unusual in the counseling world. Due to the amount of emotional energy and paperwork demands, many counselors do 20-25 counseling hours. Ryan did 40. Why? Because the company had an ongoing push for high productivity and promised a huge bonus for employees who met those standards. Self-care was discussed in meetings, but there was no implementation of it in operations. Still, Ryan pushed through, despite the fatigue, trying to get the bonus for his family. At the year-end party, when bonuses were usually announced, the company said that they believed employees were already being adequately compensated and would not be receiving bonuses.

Ryan left, and the organization loss a great counselor, potential leader, AND a high producer.


Speaking vaguely about impending changes will only heighten anxiety. Sometimes people mistakenly think that any type of “heads-up” is helpful. “There will be some changes in the next several months” is the organizational equivalent of ‘honey, we need to talk.” Providing facts at the beginning of change conversations minimizes the fear of the unknown. Even communicating that ” we don’t have all of the information on the matter yet, but we will keep you informed” builds trust in the process.

Many well-meaning organizations address change by emphasizing only the potentially positive outcomes. They do not want employees to be fearful, and they want everyone to get on board. The approach is “rah-rah, we can do it! This is going to be a great new chapter in the company.” The problem with this approach is that it short-circuits the communication and buy-in that can occur when people know the pros, cons and rationale behind impending changes. Even in circumstances that prevent complete disclosure on changes, acknowledging concerns and unknown variables increases the credibility of those leading the change. People are concerned about change because of the potential loss. Research shows that people try harder to avoid the loss of what they have rather than risking loss to acquire more. Thus, the natural response, from the best and most optimistic employees in the organization will still be a hesitancy. Providing as much information as possible without glossing over the potential downsides increases the sense that “we’re in this together.” Additionally, imagined loss-risks are often more negative than the actual loss that may occur, so information can help reduce unnecessary anxiety among employees.

People tend to forget previous successful changes in the face of new ambiguity. Remind them of past periods of change within the organization. If previous changes went smoothly, the reminder can build confidence. If previous changes were tumultuous, employees can reminded that “we survived that, and we are going to be able to get through this.” Additionally, comment on the personal qualities of the team. Perhaps they are especially creative, collaborative or hard-working. Acknowledging these qualities increases individuals’ sense of being valued as well as their confidence in navigating the next transition.

Having a voice makes people feel respected. Having a voice increases buy-in. Even if 90% of the change is not available for discussion, inviting people into the remaining 10% makes them feel that they matter. From a strategic standpoint, inviting stakeholders into the conversation may bring new options to light. Except for those employees who have adversarial personalities to begin with, most employees will understand that organizational change can’t rely on complete democracy and will appreciate the attempt to include them in the process.


  • Challenge: People are more motivated when they pursue goals that are relevant, meaningful, and perceived as possible. A bit of uncertainty about the outcome keeps one’s attention and adds challenge, thus increasing motivation.
  • Curiosity: Internal motivation increases when we are introduced to somewhat surprising information that catches our need to learn and understand.
  • Control: People want control over themselves and their environments. Giving choices that are tied to significant and meaningful outcomes increases a person’s sense of control.
  • Cooperation: Intrinsic motivation can be increased in situations where people see themselves as valuable to others and where group efforts help them to achieve their individual goals.
  • Recognition: People need to see visible outcomes. The also enjoy having their accomplishment recognized by others.

Source: Malone, T. W. & Lepper, M. R. (1987). Making learning fun: A taxonomy of intrinsic motivations for learning.

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