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Employee motivation is one of the most discussed and debated topics in business today – just as it’s been for decades.  Whether it is how to attract better applicants or retain current employees, motivation is what management talks about. Motivation also remains one of the most misunderstood topics in companies today.

Nearly every theory – scientific or empirical– hinges on some magical level of intensity, enthusiasm, and/or energy that an employee exerts.  The street credibility of any theory relies almost exclusively on the quantity of motivation – the more you have the better. Workers who plod along without much ado are labeled unmotivated while the enthusiastic with a “do whatever it takes” attitude warrants the tag “highly motivated.”

But what if the quantity of motivation is not enough? For sure, a minimum amount of motivation is essential for living.  But can there be such a thing as too much motivation?  What if the more predictive factors in motivation involve the source of motivation? What if desirable and productive behavior requires a quality of motivation factor?

Here are 10 things you probably did not know about employee motivation but should.

  1. Motivation is a simple cause and effect relationship. As complicated as academics and researchers make it, motivation comes down to this: It begins with a signal that triggers an emotion, which triggers a behavior, which results in a response.

2. Random acts of motivation are unpredictable and sometimes dangerous! Motivation does not always result in desirable outcomes.  Motivation is not magic – you can’t flip a switch and expect good things to happen. Whatever you do to trigger motivation, the response you get positive and productive or negative and counter-productive. It all depends on how the employee is “hardwired.”

3. More motivation is not always better. Attempts to motivate can trigger more negative behaviors as well as positive ones.  Employees can become stressed and agitated just as easily as they can become enthused and productive.

4. Few people “lack motivation.”  That’s not to say that many people have enough positive and productive sources of motivation to get things done.  Mediocre or poor performance is often the result of negative and counter-productive motivation.  Many people are just motivated by behaviors that cut their potential and careers short.

5. The source of motivation matters. Some people are “self-motivated” – their signals come from within. They have the “skill” to make things happen.  Other people lack the “skill” and depend on others to create it for them. If employers want more self-starting, conscientious workers they might need to help employees develop motivational skills, just like other technical and career skills.

6. The quality of the source of motivation matters. The signals that trigger the motivational cascade from emotion to response can be positive or negative.  Subsequently, the source might trigger a positive or negative attitude and mindset.

7. The quantity of the source of motivation matters.  This is likely obvious – it takes enough motivation to trigger a good response but there is a case for too much of a good thing too.

8. In most cases of personal and career success, intrinsic motivation is better. For sure, it helps to have the support of others and strong leadership often motivates. But the most consistent and sustainable behaviors come from within.

9. Intrinsic motivation is based on skills. Beyond the most primal life survival skills, motivation is a learned behavior. As children, we learn that certain behaviors provide payoffs. The more these payoffs reward us in some way, the more we repeat the behaviors. Unfortunately, some people become skilled at using counter-productive behaviors that over time harm themselves and others.

10. Motivation is ultimately measurable, quantifiable, and qualitative.  Motivation is not just some abstract concept or theory.  Four measurable categories of motivation skills that matter in today’s workplace are Ambition, Accountability, Awareness, and Agility.