Employees need to be motivated to perform. Although a pat on the back or monetary recognition can go a long way to demonstrate appreciation for a job well done, these actions alone are not enough.

People need to know that their efforts have meaning and effect, i.e., that they are not in vain. This can have the biggest impact of all on motivating behavior because people inherently want to be productive human beings and desire for their life to have some ultimate significance. This concept is perhaps best portrayed by Victor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor who wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning,” and it is the basis of logotherapy, which has been shown to help sufferers of terminal illnesses better cope with the remainder of their lives.

When people at work believe that they have no chance to succeed, they may cease to find meaning in their efforts. This can lead them to decrease their engagement at work instead of going all out to prove themselves. As The Wall Street Journal noted in a recent article, this is what happens when golfers compete with extremely superior rivals like Tiger Woods and they just “cave.”

Why does this reaction occur from people who care about doing their best?

From an IT perspective, this is like an Integration Definition for Function Modeling (IDEF0) model that examines input, process, output and outcome. When loss is viewed as a predestined outcome, the process is seen as meaningless, and the input, therefore, as wasted. In the face of meaninglessness, people recoil to save their energy for something they feel that they can really have a shot at, rather than invest in something that they see as going nowhere.

If the above is true, then, why do some people fight to the death when their backs are against the wall? My grandfather used to say, “Where there is life, there is hope.” Some people are able to confront what seem like insurmountable obstacles and fight their way forward anyway. This is the core theme of the incredibly successful “Rocky” movie series. In every movie, the main character represents the determination to succeed against all odds.

I believe that the essence of life is the search for an opportunity to make a meaningful difference, and one’s ability to make a difference is inherently motivating. (And so, of course, the opposite is true.)

So if you are a leader, and your employees are demoralized, how can you engage them so that they feel like their work makes a real and significant difference? Here are five ways that work:

  • Visualize the end state. Articulate for people a compelling vision and a clear set of goals, as well as why they are important.
  • Take an incremental approach. Show people a step-by-step plan forward; small wins can add up to big success.
  • Focus on the customer. Look together at positive downstream effects on customers (and other stakeholders) as a result of someone’s work.
  • Make use of their products. No one wants to build shelfware. Demonstrate that you really do appreciate their efforts by actually using the work they generate.
  • Be a mensch. Treat people according to the Golden Rule. For example, it’s really a small thing to say “please,” “thank you,” and even an occasional “how are you today?” By treating people with respect, you show that they are valued personally and professionally.

As a leader, what better way to motivate and drive personal and organizational success then to provide genuine opportunity to contribute of ourselves in a meaningful way where our efforts have an impact, are valued and valuable, and where everyone can succeed.

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