What Motivates You to Do a Good Job?

“I will assign you tasks that I would like you to complete. I want you to spend at minimum one third of your day working on these tasks and in return, I will compensate you.”

Suppose a stranger approached you with such a proposition. How would you respond? Clearly, you would have many follow up questions such as:

  • What are the tasks expected of me?

  • What is the maximum time I would be expected to work each day if the minimum is eight hours?

  • How much would I get compensated?

In fact, these questions examine whether there is a good effort-reward balance because our time is our most precious resource. We want to ensure we spend it on tasks that are optimally rewarding. In an effort to help us understand what motivates us, we need to examine the different types of rewards associated with work and identify which rewards are most important based on our values.

But before we jump in, let’s take a look at what motivation is and understand what is behind it.

What is Motivation

Our actions have a ‘motive’ behind them. We have certain desires or needs that cause us to behave in a certain way. Whether we move toward a target or away from it will depend on our motive.

We are faced with choices each day, even if we don’t recognize them. The reason we often overlook this fact is because we have fallen into a routine, but completing a set of tasks or doing nothing at all is still a choice. The question is, what leads us to continue doing something and, similarly, what can get us to change?

As it turns out, we are creatures of habit. When we are used to doing something, it takes less effort. There is less of a learning curve, only a bit of focus that is required. This is called keeping the status quo. If you are satisfied with what you have as a result of doing what you are doing, you will continue on in your routine. The motivation here might be satisfaction, a fear of change, or a desire to protect your energy and exert less effort.

It is when we desire something more that we are required to change. If you want a raise at work, to expand your social circle, or to lose weight, you need to focus your efforts on what will get you the results associated with your goal.

And while attaining the goal is sometimes the reward for our efforts, there are a number of other ways we can feel rewarded for our work.

Types of Rewards

Motivation is what leads us to behave in a certain way with the anticipation of a particular outcome. This intentional practice is what gets us off the ground. For example, if you are unemployed and you want to make money, by searching for work you are focusing your actions on tasks that can help you attain your money goal.

But once you’re in that job and you have a guaranteed paycheck, different motivations are needed to do the work that is required of you. And if you’ve experienced intense stress on the job or even burnout, you need to take a step back and think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Beyond the paycheck, you chose this line of work and continue to choose it each day by showing up. There must be more that is keeping you there. By getting clear on your motivations and how they align with your values, you can take inventory of whether you are in your power or need to redesign your work life.

There are two types of rewards that keep us motivated to work: External and internal.

External Rewards

Returning to our earlier example, often what we focus on initially is external because it is central to our survival. We seek work, especially early in our career, that will pay the bills. When we are more advanced in our careers, we may want a promotion in title and pay which can lead us to either seeking that in the company where we work or elsewhere.

Other rewards that keep us motivated to doing our work every day include feedback, acknowledgement, and recognition. As humans, we have a need to feel seen. If we work hard on a project, we want to know that our efforts are being noticed. It is when we receive praise or even some direction on how to improve that we feel like we are making an impact and that our hard work amounts to something.

In the movie Hidden Figures, Katherine G. Johnson works relentlessly at her NASA job. Her brilliant mind focused on manually calculating orbital mechanics necessary to perform a successful spaceflight. But no matter how hard or long she worked, she was often unable to stay ahead of the curve. As soon as she would hand in her documents, she would be told that the team was moving in a different direction.

If this were your reality, perhaps at first you would feel frustrated for having wasted your efforts. But if this were a pattern at your job, chances are that the pay would not be enough to keep you there. That is because what drives you once you’ve met your basic needs is internal.

Internal Rewards

What kept Ms. Johnson working as hard as she did? She knew that she was part of something monumental. The meaning she derived from NASA’s mission was so great, it allowed her to keep forging ahead.

It took a while for all of Ms. Johnson’s efforts to amount to anything concrete, but when the first American astronauts completed their roundtrip flight to space, she felt an immense sense of pride.

During her early years at NASA, Ms. Johnson was looked down upon by many of her coworkers who were White men. As a minority in both gender and ethnicity, she had to work extra hard to get acknowledged. Eventually, her work spoke for itself and she earned the respect she deserved from her team.

Despite many roadblocks, Katherine G. Johnson’s determination paid off in many internal and external rewards. But not all work obstacles are solved by effort alone. So how do we know when to stick it out and when to move on?

When the Rewards Aren’t Motivating Enough

If you were making half a million dollars a year in your career in your early thirties and had a VP title, would you quit your job? It may sound counter-intuitive, but as demonstrated in the story of Greg Smith, external rewards are often not enough.

Greg Smith was vice-president of the investment firm Goldman Sachs. After 12 years, he decided to leave despite his title and high compensation. The three main reasons he cited for his departure included the company’s declining “integrity,” a “toxic” environment, and the company’s culture of “ripping” off clients. While the external rewards were motivating on the one hand, the lack of alignment between the company’s values and his own took their toll.

My cousin also worked for Goldman Sachs in the 2000s. During one of my stays at his apartment in New York, I watched him wake up very early and leave, not to return until 10 or 11 o’clock at night. He described using his apartment only for sleeping and showering on weekdays because he would be working all day at the office and then dining out with clients each night.

While he was being compensated well for his time, the pressure to perform was even higher. There were expectations that had to be met and when you are in sales, the ultimate decision lies with your clients. The stress was mounting and I found my cousin resorting to pills to deal with his anxiety and slow mental deterioration. Eventually, he realized the external rewards were inadequate when compared to the demands of the job.

Why Rewards Are Important

We’ve already mentioned that rewards motivate us to work, but there is more to it than that. In fact, my research has uncovered seven answers to the question ‘why are rewards important?’

Self-Efficacy. In her 1976 article Burned-out, Christina Maslach mentioned that the two factors “most related to professional efficacy” were control and reward. In other words, in order for you to believe you are capable of doing your job well and actually doing it well, you need to have some autonomy over your decisions at work and you need to have some reward for your efforts.

Engagement. According to research by Hely Innanen and colleagues (2014), employees who were engaged in their work experienced significantly more rewards than their exhausted and less engaged coworkers. It makes sense that we are more likely to feel our work is meaningful, for example, when we have the energy to do it well and can get into a state of flow. The reward is a consequence of our engagement initially, but it also keeps us coming back for more.

Feeling Valued. Whether the reward is internal or external, when we work hard, we want to be compensated for our efforts. When we are acknowledged verbally, financially, or otherwise, we feel like others respect and value our work. This motivates us to keep going.

Intrinsic Satisfaction. We know how rewards make us feel. But what happens when we aren’t rewarded is also important to note. We’ve already mentioned that rewards motivate us. It stands to reason, then, that without proper rewards, we lose our sense of satisfaction and the motivation we need to do our work. We may feel invisible or unimportant. These feelings can lead us to lose our stamina or look for more rewarding work elsewhere.

Self-Worth. When you are adequately rewarded for your efforts, not only does the recognition justify the work, but it elevates your sense of self. Success comes as a result of putting our efforts to a task and learning from our failures. Once we have an accomplishment, we feel good about ourselves and this motivates us to keep learning and striving.

Trust. As you probably already know, trust is important in any relationship. The relationship you have with your organization is no exception. In order for you to have trust in your organization, you need to feel like they fulfill on their promises. If they recognize your work and reward you accordingly, you build trust in your place of work and this continues to motivate you to do good work for them.

Inspiration. One source of reward is positive feedback. When you put your energy toward accomplishing a company goal, getting feedback on your work can be empowering. It helps build up your self-efficacy and it inspires you to continue on your journey because someone is watching and supporting you.

Rewards are important for a variety of reasons. Regardless of what those reasons are for you, the most important aspect to keep in mind is that they are adequate for the work you are doing. You may be making a half a million dollars like Mr. Smith did, but if there is a misalignment between your values and that of your company, the pay alone won’t likely keep you there. That said, while rewards don’t lessen the workload, they can help stave off burnout because of the motivation they instill in you.

Tips to Balance the Equation

In 1996, German researcher Johannes Siegrist published the Effort-Reward Imbalance (ERI) Questionnaire. When examining the relationship between effort and reward, Siegrist noted that an imbalance in which efforts outweighs the rewards leads to emotional distress and adverse health effects.

For example, in a study on the “interplay between job demands and job resources,” researchers found that employees whose job required high effort but provided low reward called in sick more often than any other employees. Their absence can be interpreted as a result of being sick, of a lack of motivation to come to work, or as a way to reward themselves for their high effort by taking time off. The former factor may relate to burnout, especially if the sickness is psychosomatic or a result of job-related stress. The latter factor can be seen as an attempt to rebalance the equation.

It’s important to keep in mind that when the employer doesn’t balance the relationship between effort and reward, the employee will either burn out, take matters into their own hands, or both. To ensure fairness, let’s look at six tips that can help balance the equation.

  1. Increase rewards. If you’re the employer, recognize that by being proactive, you can save yourself trouble down the road. As research shows, when rewards are too low for the effort required, employees are more likely to be absent from work. How can you reward employees? Remember that rewards come in a variety of colors, so while you may not always be able to increase compensation, you can probably provide additional sources of reward. As a worker, recognize that you are not being compensated fairly and address this with your hiring manager. If they are unwilling or unable to rectify the situation, take proactive action and start your job search. It’s a good idea to know what the market will bare and get what you’re worth.

  2. Decrease demands. Employers are in the business of making money and their biggest cost is employee salaries. It is natural for them to try to get as much as possible from their hires, but they need to recognize there is a limit to how much they can get away with. Similarly to that last example, employees are just as likely to have high sickness absence when their efforts outweigh their rewards. As such, demands should be reduced or efforts will be.

  3. Empower employees. This addresses the issue of control. In the book The Truth About Burnout, authors Christina Maslach and Michael P. Leiter recommend creating a “system of autonomy, accountability and rewards” to replace micromanagement. This gives employees the ability to address issues as they come up.

  4. Dig deeper. Rather than trying to get more rewards by taking on excessive amounts of work, focus your efforts and find value by going deeper with the projects you already have.

  5. Focus on meaning. If the work you are doing is not challenging enough, communicate your needs to your supervisor. By focusing on meaningless work, you lose out on an opportunity to increase your professional development.

  6. Recover your energy. If you are burned out, you may be attempting to conserve your energy by neglecting responsibilities. Focus on recovering your energy and then figure out whether you can re-engage with your work in a different, more effective way that maintains your energy.


What motivates you at work is likely similar to what motivates you in life. For your efforts, you expect some reward or recognition. When compared to the demands, if the rewards are insufficient, you are more likely to burn out or at least lose motivation.

Being aware of the effort-reward model can help you assess whether you are in balance and if not, remind you to rectify the situation. As Abraham Lincoln once said,

“The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.”

Remember, you always have a choice.

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