Is Money the Key Motivation for Employee Engagement and Retention?

Is Money the Key Motivation for Employee Engagement and Retention?

Sid Smith

motivated by moneyA business owner recently told me with complete certainty that money was the only factor that kept his employees motivated and from jumping ship to another company.

From his perspective, he’s absolutely right, but his tone and hand motions suggested that he wasn’t at all happy with the situation.

The science behind the curtain

In the past 10 or so years scientists, researchers, and economists have combined forces to form a new branch of study they call Neuroeconomics. Neuroeconomincs combines the studies of neurology (the brain), psychology, and economics. Their goal is to form a unified theory about how and why humans make decisions.

They’ve learned that we are far from logical creatures and decisions are a balance of emotion and reason. Decisions are made nine or 10 seconds before we become consciously aware of the decision. These decisions are pre-determined from our past experiences, social or environmental factors, and other present-day stimuli.

The science put into context

To put this into context, imagine an employee hired to develop a new product. The job is challenging and has many intrinsic rewards. His initial decision to take the job at a reasonable, but not spectacular pay level was primarily based on the hiring manager’s enthusiasm for the new employee’s skills and knowledge. Simply put, the praise felt good.

Six months later the hiring manager took a new job and the new manager was mostly hands-off. Praise, if it came at all, was just used to soften criticisms.

Our employee is now disgruntled and decides that he’s not being paid enough for the work he’s doing.

The root of the problem

The root if this employee’s dissatisfaction is simply that he no longer feels valued for his skills and knowledge. He has become a cog in the wheel and nothing more. This is a direct result of weak leadership and management.

That’s one employee. What if an entire group of employees seems only motivated by money?

Here, we need to add in the social factor. While the root cause may still be weak leadership and management, the general attitude spreads and increases through social influences – going along with the crowd.

The solution

Employee engagement and satisfaction are influenced by a variety of factors, just one of which is money.

When one employee feels unfairly treated:

  • Ask if the employee is right for your company (shares your values).
  • Ask if the employee is right for the job (gets it, wants it, and has the capacity to do it).
  • Only then, look at that employee’s leaders, starting from the top. Are they actively sharing the vision? Are the job’s responsibilities crystal clear? Do leaders know the difference between leadership and management and have the training and skills to do each?

When many employees feel unfairly treated, always look first to the leaders, starting from the top:

  • Clarify, simplify, and share your company’s vision quarterly.
  • Lead: provide clear direction; act with the greater good in mind; delegate and elevate.
  • Manage: set clear expectations; communicate well; meet regularly; reward and recognize.


While money is a motivating factor, the lack of money is rarely the root cause of employee engagement, performance, or satisfaction. More money will not improve performance, and may only briefly bring some satisfaction.

There are things that company leadership can do… not TO employees, but rather FOR employees.

“As goes the leadership team, so goes the rest of the company.”

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