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Motivation vs. engagement

3 min read


This post is by Paul Marciano, author of “Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT.” Follow him on Twitter @drpaulmarciano.

If you’re not clear on the difference between employee motivation and engagement, you’re not alone. I was once asked to explain it to the CEO of an international consulting firm that claimed expertise on the subject. What I want you to know right off is that there are significant differences between the concepts and meaningful implications for how we manage people and, in turn, their productivity.

The clearest way to explain the difference between an engaged and a motivated employee: Imagine watching a team of employees working hard to complete a project by deadline. If they do so, they will be rewarded with a bonus from the client. As an observer, you see all of the employees fully in the game, working hard, and you would say, “Everyone is really motivated.”

At the eleventh hour, something goes wrong, either a computer crashes or the team realizes it doesn’t have the resources to complete the project on time and will not receive the bonus. Now, you have two groups of people: those who look at their watch and say, “Oh, well, we tried. Time to go home,” and those who say, “What is it that we can get accomplished?” Who do you want on your team?

Engaged employees are in the game for the sake of the game; they believe in the cause of the organization. Motivated employees are in it for what they can get out of it. When the carrot is taken away, the effort of the motivated employee disappears. Engaged employees are hardy — they continue to work toward accomplishing the task and supporting the mission of the organization, despite environmental challenges. They keep both feet in the boat and paddling hard toward the destination. In contrast, when times get tough, motivated employees start looking for other boats to jump into or put their heads down and hope not to get noticed.

Another important difference between motivated and engaged employees is the quality of their work. Motivated employees want to get to the finish line to get their carrot. In contrast, engaged employees want to “win” and do the best job possible, meaning taking their time and getting things right. It also means paying attention to their surroundings, in contrast to motivated people, who are like racehorses wearing blinders. Engaged employees are truly passionate and thoughtful about their work and are the difference makers in your organization.

Let me share a personal example: I recently hired a wonderful woman, Jeanne, to help with my business development. Jeanne is truly engaged because she believes in our work and mission to spread respect in the workplace. She sends me e-mails and text messages about ideas at 10 p.m. Saturday because she can’t wait to tell me Monday morning. She goes above and beyond what I ask or pay her to do and, most importantly, keeps her eyes open and brain turned on for opportunities as she goes about her work that I would never see. You don’t get this with people wearing blinders who are simply motivated to earn a paycheck.