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


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

Leaders may erode employees’ sense of status if they squander 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 their employees the floor to do so themselves.


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 totally clear or when meetings drag on with no end in sight, keeping us from other important work.

Leaders can offer up certainty rewards by making their expectations known whenever possible and by setting clear agendas and timelines for their meetings.


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, unfettered by interruptions, they send a much more rewarding signal that they trust and value the person’s ability to get things done.


Whether or not we mean to, humans draw boundaries around their groups. Some people are part of our “in-group,” while others are part of 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.


Lastly, humans innately want to feel a sense of equity and equality 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.

Author: NeuroLeadership Institute

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