Needs-Based Coaching: Employee Motivation in a New Light

By Craig Perrin

Behind every unmotivated employee is a leadership problem to be solved. Yet many leaders see motivation as a game of rewards and punishment. Forget the cash. Forget the threats. To engage today’s workforce, a leader is well advised to seek the heart of what moves people: their three basic psychological needs. But to glimpse the future of motivation, it may be helpful first to glance at the past.


A Brief History of Motivation

Reward and punishment are as old as the human race. For our tribal ancestors, survival was a critical motivator. In today’s workplace, where physical safety isn’t always the immediate first concern, how much do we really know about what motivates employees? In fact, science has explored this question for a hundred years.

In the 1900s, Frederick Taylor developed what became known as Scientific Management, which held that workers are primarily motivated by pay, and the main job of leaders is to set and enforce work standards.

In the 1940s, B.F. Skinner offered a different theory of motivation: Behaviorism, often called the “carrot and stick.” Rewards (the carrot) motivate good behavior, and punishment (the stick) discourages bad behavior.

In the 1960s, Abraham Maslow, Frederick Herzberg, and others began to explore internal motivators – including satisfaction in the work itself. These researchers asked, “Is there a better way to motivate employees that doesn’t rely on rewards and punishment?”

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