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The Connection Between Motivation and Organizational Culture

Many employers assume that their company culture is based on the organization’s mission, values, and beliefs. For companies that are new, small, or operated out of a single location, this may be very true. When organizations are young, energetic, and highly centralized, enacting cultural initiatives is inherently more manageable. For example, Zappos is known for its strong culture – a vital imperative that its founder, Tony Hsieh, held dear from its inception in 1999. Up until the time when Amazon acquired Zappos ten years later, the culture created by its founder remained visceral throughout every department of the rapidly growing organization. The same may be said today of Google and Facebook.

But where does culture come from in enterprise-level organizations that have been around for decades? Is it defined and approved in boardrooms? Does it exist in the words seen on posters in break room and cafeteria walls? Or is culture connected by something different that’s invisible and difficult to describe in most organizations? Below, I discuss how to redefine organizational culture by examining an often-overlooked link between the intrinsic motivations of its employees and the culture of the company overall.

Why Is Culture Important?

Many organizations conceive of their culture inside HR departments or among senior leadership. Either way, culture is defined and then communicated to the rest of the organization with the intent of wide adoption and implementation. Despite the immense time and energy that go into defining and managing culture, few tend to know exactly why it’s so important. Many people believe that a strong, well-defined culture helps keep employees in large organizations on the same page (i.e., it acts as a form of “social glue”). Others believe that culture is a tool for managing behavior and decisions when leadership isn’t in the room – that it’s a beacon all employees should look to when making decision in their daily work.

At a basic level, we know that top-performing companies are often those with strong cultures. For example, Southwest Airlines – a company known for its nonconformist culture – continues to beat out competitors each year. Since being listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1977, the airline’s stock has delivered 17.5% average annual returns compared with the 11% average gain for the broader market over the same span. In 2014, Southwest was the top-performing stock in the S&P 500, posting a 122% return.

Every theory around organizational culture suggests that a part of an industry-leading organization’s success has to do with its culture – whether that manifests in its capacity to make sound decisions, recruit top talent, or achieve high financial performance. Yet, for this impact to occur, the true culture of large, enterprise-level organizations cannot merely exist on a poster or in the boardroom. The enactment of culture fails when organizations define culture in a vacuum and attempt a top-down approach. Efforts to define an organization’s culture have the potential to be successful for organizations that adopt an inside-out approach.

Identifying and Analyzing the Motivations of Top Performers

It’s inherently difficult to establish a culture without knowing what the organization finds valuable. For organizations to perform at their peak, certain values unique to that company are critical. For example, some tech firms may deem that innovation and creativity are critical. For other companies in the financial sector, it might be stability and reliability. Frequently, these values are apparent to the organization’s top performing employees. Unlike others, they “get” the company’s goals, vision, mission, and values and, as a result, contribute to quantifiable success measures that prove they are top performers.

If organizations desire cultures that inspire employees to perform at a high level, then it makes sense to study the motivations of the top performing employees who are already contributing to the organization’s success – particularly individuals working in business units that exemplify the values of the organization every day. To cite an earlier example, a technology firm may deem innovation and creativity as two top values in the organization. Thus, it makes sense to assess the motivational profile of top-performing employees in the development and product design departments. This provides the organization with intrinsic motivational insights into why these top performers are naturally driven to achieve the results they’ve achieved to date.

Mapping Culture Based On Motivational Evidence

Once an organization understands the motivation profile of top-performers that exude the company’s values, it can begin to map its culture with those motivations in mind.

Additional benefits also arise from defining culture in this way:

  • The culture is defined using an inside-out (rather than top-down) approach by studying the individuals performing at the highest levels in the organization, thus improving adoption rates.

  • It makes ongoing management of culture easier and also makes culture a living and breathing thing – additionally, the motivations of top-performers can be re-assessed and changes to culture can be discussed annually.

  • Recruitment efforts of hiring based on cultural fit becomes easier when candidates can be assessed for their motivational profile in the same way.

  • Current employees can be re-aligned into roles or departments more fitting for their cultural profiles.

Perhaps most important of all, connecting the missing link of motivation to a company’s culture allows the practical existence of culture to be leveraged and utilized in a more meaningful way. This logical view of organizational culture is needed by leaders in order to truly understand the common motivations behind it’s strongest employees — and to have any hope of leveraging culture to achieve higher overall organizational performance.


Christian Thoroughgood, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about him here!

Photo Credit: The Difference and Jeff_Terrell

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