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Motivated by money - and 3 other myths.

Money is not the sole or most powerful motivation for many people. A higher and tougher test is to look back and see how you’ve made the world a better place.

Guy Kawasaki

Author and ex Apple executive

There is no doubt that pay is a central element of employee reward. However, is the impact of pay increases and other financial incentives over estimated?

The above quote explaining that people aren’t solely money motivated is an interesting claim from the business adviser, author and ex Apple marketer, Guy Kawasaki.

“It’s easy for some to say” I hear you cry, as clearly financial compensation needs to be decent and fair. Tesco have received a harsh reminder of this recently as they face up to £10 billion in claims from shop floor workers following the European Court’s recent ruling. However, beyond that it’s important to remember that most people are not entirely money motivated. And here’s the proof:

The currency of reward and motivation

Many of us learnt about systems of reward and recognition from a very young age. Before the currency of money was on our radar, receiving certificates and tokens to recognise our achievements was a major part of our childhoods. As we returned home from school with these merits, parents and grandparents applauded our achievements. Many of us would store these mementoes in a safe place as a lasting reminder.

That feeling of achievement and personal pride is something that we’ll never forget, yet creating that is so rarely focussed on in professional adulthood. We focus on financial incentives despite a clear lack of evidence that this engages people. Harvard Business Review shared a large study that discovered a less than 2% correlation between pay and job satisfaction levels, concluding:

If we want an engaged workforce, money is clearly not the answer […] In a nutshell: money does not buy engagement.

We propose that recognition is the true key to engaging your people.

Why is employee recognition important?

Receiving praise and recognition releases dopamine in the brain, which creates the feelings of pride and pleasure. Better yet, that dopamine hit cements the knowledge that more of that behaviour will create more praise, resulting in another dopamine drench, and so on.


The default settings of businesses and reward schemes often forget about the power of recognition and start instead to focus on the power of reward. A pay-rise or bonus payment will create a dopamine hit, but it will be short lived. So defaulting to this approach of financial reward without other tools in the box will quickly become expensive.

As leaders and managers we become conditioned to believe that most people will only work hard for money. Want them to work harder? Pay them more. This extends to the point that it becomes a fear – the fear that people will only respond to money or reward.

The WOW! Awards was created with a more positive set of beliefs. It is the only recognition tool on the market designed to uncover personal, individual stories of outstanding service. What we have learnt from these stories is fascinating and has been an uplifting and myth-busting experience.

What has The WOW! Awards taught us?

The WOW! Awards has been running employee recognition programmes for over 20 years. We independently review and judge every awards nomination, which has opened our eyes to a few things.

As a result, we believe that management decisions made out of fear should be questioned, so here are some other myths we’d like to set straight:

Myth 1: Customers only ever want to complain.

No doubt many businesses spend a lot of time and effort managing customer complaints. Whilst this is important, we’ve learnt that when the channels are open customers also love to say thank you when they receive great service.

It just has to be simple to do and in a way that gives front line people recognition from the most senior management.

Unfortunately, most organisations only ever ask for complaints, so that’s what they get. Organisations who understand the opportunity in positive feedback will reap the benefits, such as our client, Yorkshire Water.

This is what keeps me motivated at work, seeing that even during a global pandemic our colleagues are delivering amazing customer experience and our customers are taking the time to pay us a compliment.

Jessica Collinge

Head of Customer Service Experience Strategy, Yorkshire Water

Find out more more in Yorkshire Water’s client success story.

Myth 2: We have to micromanage people to achieve the best results.

How many people have you met who will tell you that they enjoy being micromanaged? Or that it inspires them to deliver their best work?

Most people we speak to would prefer to be given the responsibility, resources and support to do a great job. In customer facing roles we’ve seen this is where people become enabled to go above and beyond in ways that surprise and delight customers.

Myth 3: Softness is weakness.

What we have discovered is that the most powerful tool at our disposal is the ability to say ‘thank you’. Sincere and meaningful gratitude received from a customer and delivered by senior management is immensely powerful.

Elaine Arundel, working at the University of Gloucestershire supported this belief as she explained:

Even though I’m just doing my job, it’s really nice to be recognised by my fellow staff members

Elaine Arundel

University of Gloucestershire

Interested to learn more about the psychology of motivation?

A survey of UK sales people conducted by Austin Benn found that “Being respected is the single biggest motivator in all respondents, far more than money!”

The key point here is that ALL of their survey respondents answered in this way. Everybody values being respected and appreciated in their work.

If you’d like to learn more, you can watch the fascinating ‘The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’ by Dan Pink below.