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What About Pay? Isn’t Money the Only Thing that Really Motivates?

Where does money fit into this scheme?

Pay is the ringer in the motivation equation. It is the one factor that shows up as both a source of satisfaction and a source of dissatisfaction. People are dissatisfied with their pay when they feel it isn’t commensurate with their efforts, is distributed inequitably, doesn’t reflect the responsibilities of the job, or is out of touch with market realities. If you don’t pay competitive wages, people will be unhappy and they will quit. No matter how much you raise salaries, though, you won’t generate motivation and job satisfaction, because job satisfaction is a function of the content of the job.

On the other hand, if people feel that their pay reflects the quality of the contribution they are making to their organization, and is equitable with other high-talent performers inside and outside the company, and recognizes the unique contributions that they make, then pay can be a powerful source of true motivation.

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Look at it this way: Hire me to wash dirty dishes and pay me chicken feed and I’ll be unhappy and unmotivated. But raise my wages to a princely sum and guess what—I’ll still hate washing dirty dishes. But I won’t complain anymore about my crummy compensation; I probably won’t quit; and I may even improve my attendance record (if you pay me my now-lavish wages on an hourly basis). What you have bought with the munificent pay increase you provided me was not the presence of satisfaction. All you have bought is the absence of dissatisfaction. If you really want me to be a happy camper, you’d better change the nature of my work.

And changing the nature of the work is the true key to motivation. The message is clear: Do everything you can to mollify the generators of employee unhappiness, recognizing that no matter how big an investment you make in compensation you’ll get precious little in return. All that your money will buy is the absence of dissatisfaction. Listen up: You have no choice! You must pay people competitive wages, you must provide a healthy, safe, and attractive work environment, you must give at least as good insurance policies, vacations, and retirement plans and other benefits as they could get working for the bagel joint down the street.

If you don’t, people will leave you and you won’t be able to hire replacements. But all you’ll get for the fortune you spend in this effort is a bunch of people who have to search hard for something to bitch about. If you want genuine motivation, you’ve got to look at the job itself. Does the work provide people with the chance to really accomplish something? I’m not talking about the psychological trap of providing a sense of accomplishment. I don’t want a sense of anything, and neither does anybody who’s working for you. What we want is the opportunity for real achievement, for genuine accomplishment. Does my job allow me to do something that makes an actual difference? Do I get recognized for what I do—recognized both financially and through nonmonetary means? Do I have a lot of say in how I do my job or am I totally constricted by standard operating procedures? Can I learn and grow and develop on this job, or will I be tightening the same nut on the same bolt for the next thirty years?

The Peace Corps knows the secret. The Peace Corps generates incredible feelings of motivation among its volunteers because it provides them with jobs worth doing. The Peace Corps sticks middle-class Americans in malarial jungles and feeds them grubs and bugs. Why don’t their volunteers flee? Because while they’re there they have the chance to transform the lives of entire communities and populations. CARE is another sterling example. And many other not-for-profit organizations have overcome their inability to pay Wall Street wages by giving people the best jobs they might dream of. The message is clear: If you can’t satisfy people’s pocketbooks, then satisfy their souls. And most companies have the capability of providing soul-satisfying work.

The motivation problem that most managers face is that since they can’t compete with megabucks corporations in what they pay their people, they tell themselves that even trying to motivate people is useless. They abandon all efforts and merely hope that staff will somehow develop internal generators of motivation independent of any efforts they make from the top.