4 Science-Backed Reasons You’re Not Motivated at Work

UPDATED: February 3, 2023
PUBLISHED: June 30, 2016

Breaking news alert: There’s an engagement problem in the workplace. According to the latest Gallup poll conducted in January, only 32.5 percent of the workforce is really engaged.

OK so this isn’t really new, but it’s a recurring problem about workplace motivation—and that’s a problem. But where does motivation come from? And how can you build it?

Related: Top of Mind: How Do You Find Motivation When You’re Not Feeling It?

Here are a few things science has to say about motivation and how to inspire more of it.

1. Motivation isn’t one-size-fits-all.

You likely already know the basics of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic is motivation that comes from within. We do things because we want to and because we enjoy them. Extrinsic motivation is when we do tasks to earn rewards or avoid punishment. It seems simple, but workplace motivation comes in more diverse forms.

At work, people are motivated by different achievement goals, a 2013 Journal of Managerial issues article explains:

  • Performance-approach goals: Employees are motivated to work hard to be the best in comparison to others.
  • Performance-avoidance goals: Employees are motivated to work to avoid being the worst.
  • Mastery-approach goals: Employees are motivated by knowledge. They want to learn as much as possible when completing a task.
  • Mastery-avoidance goals: Employees are motivated to complete tasks to avoid losing their skills and abilities.

Understanding the different achievement goals is a key to effectively motivating your team. For example, performance-avoidant people might swallow questions because they’re afraid of looking incompetent. Providing an inclusive, supportive and motivating workplace allows your team to focus on its strengths instead of weaknesses. For people who prefer performance-approach goals, friendly competition might be the best motivator.

Pay close attention to your team. Determine what types of goals they’re focused on and how you can help bolster increased motivation in them.

2. People want to feel in control.

No matter what types of goals employees strive toward, everyone wants control. It’s part of the Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000)—people are motivated to grow, change and achieve by basic psychological needs. And autonomy is one of them.

Researchers tested this theory in a 2015 International Journal of Psychophysiology article. In the study, one group was assigned a task and a second group was given a choice of equally difficult tasks. When given a choice, people feel a greater sense of intrinsic motivation to get the task done.

The results are clear—people feel motivated when they feel in control of their work. Boost motivation by allowing others to control their workflow and schedules. Have them write their own goals. Take note of the increased productivity, motivation and happiness.

3. Meaningful work is more motivating.

People don’t want to waste time on tasks that seem meaningless. When they can see the value of their work, they’re much more motivated to do it.

A 2010 Journal of Educational Psychology study evaluated this relationship between value and motivation in a group of high school students. For one semester, one group of students summarized what they learned in science class each day while another group wrote how what they had learned applied to their lives. Those who wrote about the importance of science in their lives improved their grades and said they were more interested in the class than students who wrote summaries.

When we understand why a task is meaningful, we’re more interested and motivated to do well. But there’s a big disconnect of this concept in the workplace. An alarming 57 percent of those surveyed by Achievers said they aren’t motivated by their company’s mission.

Focus on the company mission and the meaning behind tasks to improve motivation at work. Why are tasks important? What’s the ultimate outcome? And most importantly, how does the employee’s work contribute? Focus on the big picture and show your team how their work matters.

4. Confidence influences motivation.

When we set out to achieve something, our brains perform a calculation—what are the chances of success compared to the amount of work needed and the potential reward for completing the task?

How we perceive the different factors in this equation has a huge impact on our motivation, a 2014 Journal of Educational Psychology study suggests. On average, when study participants had a high expectation of success and reward and lower perception of difficulty, they were more interested in the activity.

In other words, the easier a task appears and the better we expect to perform, the more motivated we are to do it. It seems obvious enough, but how does this concept play out in the workplace? Every task you encounter isn’t going to be easy. The key lies in competence and confidence.

Underlying the ideas of competence and confidence is self-efficacy—the extent to which a person believes in the ability to succeed in specific situations or accomplish a task. It’s built over time through experiences with mastering activities and the reinforcing patterns. If a person experiences success and attributes it to his or her own efforts, the “snowball” of self-efficacy starts building. If setbacks and failures are dealt with through persistence and resiliency, there’s more success, continuing to build the “snowball.”

Improve and support self-efficacy by providing opportunities for mastery, encouraging persistence and resiliency, and providing recognition and feedback.

Applaud and reward efforts. Then when your team is faced with a new challenge, they are confident they can work hard to conquer it. Rewarding efforts with public recognition motivates a person to put the work in that eventually leads to results.

Motivation at work doesn’t appear out of thin air. Everyone needs to do their part to boost the team’s happiness and motivation.

Related: Do These 7 Things to Get (and Stay) Motivated

Henry Albrecht is the CEO of Limeade, the corporate wellness technology company that measurably improves employee health, well-being and performance. Connect with Henry and the Limeade team on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.