Culture and Motivation

Does your organization’s culture motivate your staff? Probably not directly, but it can be used as a breeding ground for actual motivators.

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to engage in some great conversations regarding motivators and one aspect people continued to mention was their culture. So I decided to dig a little deeper on this.

Most people who told me their culture motivates people also described their culture as one that is consistent with a safe, positive work environment where people are encouraged to have fun. Interestingly enough, most of these also built a culture that was largely focused on value based attitudes and beliefs. Particular values that continued to re-emerge were that of loyalty, team work, responsibility, trust, safety, learning and customer service. Again however I had to ask myself, is it the culture itself that actually motivates the staff? The answer, not really, but it does well to set the stage in order to feed into the actual motivators that people generally have.

Culture is based on shared values and beliefs and thus is largely formed around emotional responses to the physical and social work environments that are created for employees. It’s these emotional reactions who are actually the motivators. Let me illustrate some examples of how this might unfold if you wanted to create a culture that inspires higher levels of performance by tapping into your employee’s physical and social needs.

Physical Work Environment

Places that have successfully created this atmosphere begin by creating a physical environment that attends to some of the employee’s needs. A physical location that is constructed in a manner to promote the physical safety of its employees is a good start. Security access and monitoring increase this sense of security had by people especially if they work in a role where they interact with the public. An open floor plan that allows people to engage in sociable work groups with the ability to assist each other and offers natural lighting is another physical attribute that seems common as well. With increased levels of natural light and the ability to make friends with their coworkers people tend to feel better about the environment in which they work.

An open concept also provides supervisors a line of sight that typical cubicles and offices don’t allow. Normally supervisors have to be within close proximity to their staff in order to perform their roles. An open concept allows supervisors to observe their staff without close proximity reducing the level of anxiety some employees suffer when they feel closely scrutinized. Work stations themselves in some cases also incorporated ergonomics to reduce the injury levels caused through repetitive motions or improper posture.

By creating a pleasant physical working environment they set the stage for the ability to focus on the more emotional aspects of motivating people. In connection with Herzberg et al.’s (1959) theory one could say that hygiene factors within the physical environment are met, thus creating the opportunity to focus on the more intrinsic motivational factors. Where another way to look at it might be that you have created an environment consistent with meeting the first too levels of needs according to Maslow’s (1943) theory. A physical environment that provides the physical needs to do the job while promoting a sense of safety to the employees.

Social Work Environment

The social work environment is the epicentre of the organization’s culture fostered within the workplace. It will nurture the emotional aspects of what motivates people to higher levels of performance while strengthening the culture from which these feelings are derived.

A common tool used amongst organizations was that of behavioral descriptive questions or profile assessment tools used during recruitment. These are mechanisms used to assist in the determination of what a person’s natural tendencies might be. Recruiters would look for characteristics which indicate a person would be motivated intrinsically through a natural desire to solve problems. This would create a sense of achievement or accomplishment or fulfillment after helping others in need through which employees would find themselves with a higher degree of job satisfaction simply by going about the natural course of their duties. This concept is supported by Herzberg et al. (1959) as well, indicating that job satisfaction is a motivator.

This same concept also leads to another aspect common within culturally centric workplaces and that’s the desire to assist one another as well. Because the people hired share common values and these characteristics drive satisfaction through the ability to assist others, they are often more willing to assist each other as well. With a physical environment supporting this, employees naturally begin forming social circles around the strengths that each person offers within the team. Teamwork and the sense of unity these behaviors create also endorse the sense of belonging which Maslow (1943) would describe as part of his third level of the needs hierarchy. This sense of belonging thus would motivate others to continue assisting others in order to assure they are not excluded from the social context of the workplace relationships.

Another avenue often used to inspire this feeling of belonging is that of games and competitions. Many organizations use this as a “team building” exercise. This technique however also appeals to motivators in a number of different ways. Games which are “fun” will within themselves enhance the level of job satisfaction associated with the work environment. However; if the competitions are designed to enhance the levels of performance of the employee it’s possible to motivate the staff on many levels. For instance, if there is also a reward attached to the competition for which the employees have a positive valance and the employees understand the level of effort that is required to increase performance levels enough to achieve the reward then according to Vroom’s (1964) expectancy theory they would feel motivated to do so. Upon accomplishment of the task the employees would be left with higher levels of achievement providing motivation through esteem or Maslow’s (1943) fourth level of needs. This feeling of accomplishment is also a motivator that inspires higher levels of job satisfaction according to Herzberg et al. (1959).

Another tool that seems to be growing in popularity amongst company’s who say they thrive based on their cultures is that of flexible scheduling. According to some the trick with this tool however is to develop a policy around it which ensures there is still a fair and equitable distribution of time that both assists the staff in meeting personal demands while still upholding their obligations to the organization. My personal experience with this is that flexible scheduling can be used to reduce turnover and improve performance of both the staff and the organization. Through the ability to balance personal and work life obligations the staff typically find themselves less stressed resulting in healthier employees and a reduction in absenteeism. This increases their levels of job satisfaction which then motivates them to higher levels of performance.

Also through less absenteeism and lower levels of turnover the organization also experiences higher levels of customer satisfaction through the retention of trained and knowledgeable employees. Recently a study by Batt and Colvin (2011) supports this concept. Costs affected through turnover such as recruitment or training and development costs are lowered also. This has a positive impact on the bottom line for organizations thus allowing them to perform better as well.

Professional development is another aspect common amongst the organizations who believe highly in their cultural influence over the staff. This is done through formal or informal training, coaching and/or mentoring.

Due to the strong commitment already present amongst the staff in these organizations, employees who do not perform up to standard are often excluded from the informal social circles with the workplace because they are considered a burden.  Offering training in order to improve the skills and productivity of the employees is appealing to them because it would aid them in “fitting in”. Thus, it’s the sense of belonging that actually motivates the underperforming staff to improve their skills and then their performance which is consistent with Maslow’s (1943) third level of needs.

Through improvement of their workplace proficiencies their levels of self esteem also increase due to the achievements they are making on their performance levels. This intrinsic motivator along with improved social status continues to motivate the employees to continue their personal development plans. This desire to continue learning and developing their skills leads again to higher levels of performance. This concept is consistent with Maslow’s (1943) fourth and fifth levels of needs.

A higher level of esteem through achievement of goals increases the level of job satisfaction staff feel. Through goal setting and coaching plans employees are able to set expectations for their growth and continue to motivate themselves through the achievement and job satisfaction derived from these. This leads again to higher performance levels. Coaching sessions also provide a means for supervisors to communicate with their staff regarding any obstacles that might be impeding the desired level of performance needed to meet these goals. This provides the supervisor the ability to act on this information by removing these barriers and thus satisfying the employee’s hygiene factors. This again allows the employee to focus on areas of intrinsic motivation and increases their level of job satisfaction, Herzberg et al. (1959).

So although an organization’s culture within itself is not a motivator. We certainly can see there are examples of how culture centred on values such as loyalty, team work, responsibility, trust, safety, learning and customer service can provide an effective means of creating a positive environment in which motivational tools and techniques can be used to increase performance.


Batt, R. and Colvin, A. J. S. 2011. An employment systems approach to turnover: Human resources practices, quits, dismissals, and performance. Academy of Management Journal, 54 (4): 695-717.

Herzberg, F., Mauser, B. and Snyderman, B.B. (1959), The Motivation to Work, New York:John Wiley & Sons

Maslow, A. (1943), A Theory of Human Behavior, Psychological Review, 50, 4, 370-396

Vroom, V.H. (1964), Work and Motivation, Chichester: John Wiley

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1 Response to Culture and Motivation

  1. Pingback: Employee Recognition | Colin Finlay, CHRP

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