Talk to the “man in the street” about motivation at work and they will usually say that it’s the money that motivates them. We work for money don’t we? Well, yeesss… but provided we earn whatever we regard as “enough”, money is not the main thing that motivates us at work.

People leave well-paid jobs because they aren’t happy – the money doesn’t keep them there. People volunteer for activities for which there is no pay. People carry on working even when they earn vastly more money than they could ever spend. (Elon Musk is an example of this – he says his motivation isn’t about the money but that what gets him up in the morning is the desire to solve technical problems).

It’s true that money can demotivate, especially if you feel other people are (unfairly) being paid more than you. But money is not the main thing that keeps us motivated.

So what is?

What really motivates in the long term is the things that you do – how you spend your time at work and at home – that you are interested in and enjoy, and that make you feel fulfilled. Things that relate to your inner sense of personal purpose. Things that meet your psychological needs. Things that feel part of your identity, who you are as a person.

Cath Bishop recently wrote an insightful article about motivation when Ash Barty, decided to retire from tennis at the height of her game. Cath writes that being motivated is about having autonomy, mastery and purpose (these are explained in Dan Pink’s book Drive and in this video). I add connection to that list.


Purpose is especially important – not the short-term aim of winning an event, but a sense of purpose over the long term. Sporting achievements are transient, as are winning that big sale, increasing your revenue, bagging a new client, designing a new product. They can only make us feel satisfied in the short-term.

We like to feel that our activities link to a wider purpose. We feel motivated when our work means something beyond ourselves, when we feel that it contributes to some bigger purpose or matters to other people.

It is likely that Ash Barty has a sense of purpose beyond winning the next tournament. Her actions after the Australian Open – sharing her trophy with youngsters on the clay courts of Uluru – suggest that a sense of social responsibility and connection to others is part of her bigger purpose.

We feel motivated when we have a purpose that is bigger than ourselves and which gives us the opportunity to fulfil our basic needs through the activities of our daily work and life, our needs for:

• Freedom: to have some choice and control in how we do our jobs
• Competence: to use our talents and know we are good at our jobs
• Connection: to belong to the group and feel valued for contributing to it
• Potential: to fulfil our potential and help others fulfil theirs.

How do you meet your basic needs through your work?

If you are a leader-manager, how can you enable others to meet theirs?

Later this year, my book – Motivation: The Ultimate Guide to Leading Your Team – will be published by Routledge.  There will be some answers to these questions!