5 Ways to Spark (or Destroy) Your Employees’ Motivation

An illustration of a group of employees representing each domain of NLI's SCARF model

Authored by

NLI Staff
Sending employees positive social signals makes them feel valued, engaged, and inspired.

Conversations are much more than a simple exchange of words. Consciously or not, every time we interact with someone, we’re meeting some of their social needs and perhaps depriving them of others. That is, we’re using language and engaging in behavior that either uplifts and motivates people or causes them to withdraw and shut down.

When it comes to workplace interactions, research makes it clear that leaders can maximize engagement and drive lasting performance when they help their team members meet one another’s needs.

So which needs should leaders focus on?

Over a decade ago, NLI identified five such domains in humans’ social experience: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. These domains make up The SCARF® Model, which we’ve outlined below.

Status

Status is the drive we feel to stand out from the crowd. When we share our new ideas and receive credit for a job well done, status is that glow of importance and value we’re looking for.

Leaders may erode employees’ sense of status if they disregard those new ideas or take credit for others’ work. On the other hand, they can bestow status rewards when they share employees’ accomplishments with the wider team — or better yet, give employees the floor to do so themselves.

Certainty

Humans naturally like to know what’s going on. We like to understand our surroundings and be able to predict outcomes. At work, we feel threats to our certainty when our roles or responsibilities aren’t clear or when leaders announce changes are coming without being clear about what they are and who they’ll impact.

Leaders can offer up certainty rewards by making their expectations known and by being as transparent as possible.

Autonomy

Generally speaking, we all like to feel a sense of control over the work we do and the decisions we make.

When leaders involve themselves with every little detail of their team members’ work, they risk creating threats to people’s autonomy. (This is why micromanaging feels so offensive.) However, when leaders give employees the time and space to do their work, or the option to choose the work location that allows them to be most productive, they send a much more rewarding signal that they trust and value the person’s ability to get things done.

Relatedness

Whether or not we mean to, humans draw boundaries around their groups. Some people are part of an “in-group,” while others fall in the “out-group.” In-groups and out-groups crop up all the time at work. For leaders, the goal is to expand the in-group and shrink the out-group to increase the sense of relatedness across the organization.

Relatedness is the sense that we belong — that we’re in the in-group. Leaders can use language such as “we” and “us” to promote that feeling instead of language like “you,” “me,” and “they,” which signals a clear boundary between groups. Indeed, political research finds that using collective pronouns can increase a politician’s chances of getting elected.

Fairness

Lastly, humans innately want to feel a sense of equity in social interactions. We prefer what’s justified over what’s tilted in one party’s favor.

Leaders can go a long way in promoting fairness through acts of transparency. For example, when making decisions, leaders can communicate their thought process behind picking one choice over another. When employees don’t get the full picture and start to invent alternate stories, it may increase the chance people feel slighted.

In all cases, sending SCARF® rewards goes a long way toward making employees feel valued, engaged, and inspired to commit to their work, whereas threatening these domains has the opposite effect.

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