Why do people go to work every day? It turns out there are a lot of answers to that question, and those answers can potentially play a big role in how well people do their jobs. It comes down to total motivation—or “tomo”—a measure of the basic reasons that people work and how it drives their performance.
Lindsay McGregor, co-founder of Vega Factor and best-selling author of Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation, studies tomo and how organizational culture determines it.
An employee’s total motivation (tomo) is defined by three direct motives: the play that people feel in their work, the purpose they find in it, and the potential they see for outcomes like career advancement. There are also three indirect motives: emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia. McGregor’s research has found that the first three motives—those directly related to the work itself—strengthen team performance, while the second three weaken it.
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Moreover, there are two primary kinds of individual performance: tactical (how well you execute the plan) and adaptive (how well you diverge from the plan when needed)—the second of which is defined by traits like creativity, problem-solving, persistence, and collaboration.
Companies are usually good at managing tactical performance, but it’s adaptive performance that is harder to develop and is directly affected by company culture. In short: Organizations whose cultural environments increase employee tomo perform better in areas like customer satisfaction, innovation, and overall sales.
“If I was going to tell a leader what the things are that can most impact your employees’ tomo, I would say encouraging experimentation, deep skill coaching, and thinking about your interpersonal behaviors,” says McGregor. “How are you inspiring play and purpose and potential in people’s work lives?”
We talked to McGregor, a keynote speaker at Slack’s San Francisco and upcoming New York Frontiers conferences, about why tomo is so important and how to increase it on teams to help people connect, collaborate, and do their very best work.
Slack: What motivated you personally to study employee motivation?
Lindsay McGregor: I’d always been interested in how teams of people work. In high school, I remember being fascinated by the Good to Great book that applied to nonprofits and schools. But when this research really hit me emotionally was in my very first few years of work.
“I had previously thought of [workplace] culture as something soft and fluffy, and that if you had enough grit as a person, you could make any workplace into a great experience. And once I actually entered the workforce, I realized that was absolutely not true.”
I was a young analyst, working in strategy consulting, and I would go into these huge call centers that were the size of multiple football fields. You could just feel the dread. People did not want to be there; they felt like robots sitting in their field of cubicles, being forced to read a script to their customers. We were bringing lots of really great tactical and strategic tools to these organizations, like data metrics and reporting, but people would greet these things with dread, and you would see 50% of the workforce quit every year in some of these call centers.
It felt like everybody on the leadership team was individually a nice person; they had good intentions, but somehow all these good intentions were completely failing. And it was just heartbreaking that we were helping to create these environments.
I had previously thought of culture as something soft and fluffy, and that if you had enough grit as a person, you could make any workplace into a great experience. And once I actually entered the workforce, I realized that was absolutely not true.
I wanted to figure out what is this thing called culture. Why can you feel it as soon as you enter some places and not others? Why is it so difficult to do, especially as you get larger and larger groups of people working together?
Slack: What have been some of the biggest surprises or discoveries about employee motivation that came up in your research?
McGregor: One big surprise to me was that everybody thinks they themselves are motivated by the positive things (play, purpose, and potential). But they have a huge bias to believe that the other people around them are just there for the paycheck.
For example, in one organization, everybody thought that their colleagues were really motivated by emotional pressure, by this need to really look good in their meetings with each other. There was a lot of showboating, a lot of competition for who would get presentation time, a lot of prep work that went into internal meetings. And so when we asked people what they believed affected other people’s tomo, they would talk about all that emotional pressure.
What we find really helps leaders in organizations is realizing that people will often assume leaders are just there to look good or get a paycheck unless they actually explain to people why they’re motivated by the play in their work, or the purpose of their customer impact. You actually have to make that a lot more visible through your storytelling, your language, your behavior than any of us think.
The second big surprise was around millennials. When we were studying the differences in motivation levels between the general population and millennials, we found that millennials’ brains are just like everybody else’s. Everybody is wired to tomo.
However, millennials were more skeptical that they could find tomo at work. Because they were skeptical of that, they were worried that maybe the right thing to do would be to minimize work so that they could find tomo outside of work. It’s not universally true, but it was a trend in our data, which was really fascinating. So as we work with organizations on how they recruit the next generation of leaders, we help them better understand how to communicate the opportunities for play, purpose, and potential to their employees.
Slack: Can you think of a change that a company has made that by itself has had a significant effect on employee motivation, team performance, and company culture?
McGregor: Salesforce, for example, moved from a waterfall process of software development with siloed teams to small cross-functional teams, which created a huge and meaningful lift in their tomo quite instantly.
A second type of thing that can make a really big difference is getting rid of titles and hierarchies. We worked with one organization where, if you had four people on a team, they would have four different status levels, and so it created a lot of deference and hierarchy, which really reduced their collaborative problem-solving. And so they essentially said that you’re either an associate or you’re a coach. They got rid of all of those titles and introduced the model of promotions and compensation that was based on skill.
A third type of change that organizations have made is to change the way that their teams work to a system of experimentation. One organization would have every team come together once a week to design the experiments that they were going to run that week to see if they could improve their performance and improve their tomo. It changed the organization from a very top-down situation, where you have to follow what your boss says or just work through your very tactical to-do list, into one where everybody felt responsibility for improving how the team works and how the team has impact. And that example increased their profitability by 20%, so it had a real impact on their business outcomes.
Slack: When you yourself are building a team, what kind of traits do you look for outside of just subject-matter expertise?
McGregor: Subject-matter expertise and skill is definitely important. For example, if you put me in a professional basketball game, my tomo would be atrocious, because I do not have the skills to play basketball. So we definitely look for skill first.
After skill, the second thing we look for when we’re building a team is: Will the people on that team have tomo for the work that you’re going to be doing together? And how do you assemble a group of people that have a mix of what they find play in?
So, for example, if I was assembling a team, I’d want to find somebody who has play in project management. Someone that might be the person that puts together a big Excel document for their family vacation and plans it down to the nth level of detail. Or, if I want somebody who’s really analytical, I might find somebody who’s got lots of play for analysis. And that might be the person who’s done a big financial model for their personal life, based on which career path they take and how it’s going to affect their family finances.
“The best advice that I got in leadership was that autonomy means giving your people the ability to experiment in how they work, but it doesn’t mean leaving them alone.”
Slack: What is some great leadership advice that you’ve received?
McGregor: One of the mistakes I made early on as a leader was to think that people need tons of autonomy. So I would show up on Monday morning and ask my team, “How was your weekend?” And I would be nice and friendly, and I’d say, “Call me if you have an emergency, I’m here to help.” From the team’s perspective, great. I wasn’t a jerk. But it didn’t feel to them like I was invested in their success. And I wasn’t helping them find play in their work. I wasn’t helping them really find the purpose in their work. I wasn’t helping to reduce the emotional pressure or inertia by clarifying the goals and helping them structure their work and feel victories every single week.
And so the best advice that I got in leadership was that autonomy means giving your people the ability to experiment in how they work, but it doesn’t mean leaving them alone.
Slack: When you think about work environments where employees thrive, is there any one thing that they all have in common (or what is one thing that limiting work environments have in common)?
McGregor: We measured companies that were famous for their cultures. So companies like Southwest, Whole Foods, Nordstrom, companies across multiple industries. We found that while all of these companies have very different personalities, all of them create tomo in their people.
The things that were common about that were in play; it was a real love of solving the problems that they had to solve. For one Whole Foods employee, for example, it was how do I continually optimize the yogurt aisle so that I get customers? How do I find the most interesting, most novel, most local type of yogurt? We saw one of the employees see a couple perusing the yogurt aisle and ask if the couple would mind taste-testing something for them. The person ran into the back of the store, brought out a yogurt with two spoons, asked the couple to try it, got their feedback on what can we do differently: Do you like it? Should we stock it? That’s real play for the customer’s advantage. A place that didn’t create tomo would tell that employee, “Stay in your spot.”
Slack: We’ve commissioned some research that shows that human connection at work and transparency across organizations is critical to employee motivation and satisfaction. Are there things that you’ve seen work to increase connection and visibility across companies?
McGregor: The biggest mistake we see companies make is thinking that community events—all volunteering together, or having that Halloween party—are going to fix their culture alone. And those are really important things to do, because the more you build connectivity with your colleagues, the lower your emotional pressure. You’re less anxious, you’re more willing to give leaders and teammates the benefit of the doubt, and you’re much more likely to find play in problem-solving with your colleagues, because you’re no longer scared to bring up your risky ideas or test something new.
So we find that when companies are doing things to enhance connectivity, we really encourage them to say, What’s the goal of it? How are you making sure that it reduces emotional pressure?
I’m sure we’ve all been to that company Halloween party where we sit in the corner with the four people that sit in the cubicles next to us, and don’t interact with anybody else. It doesn’t really accomplish the goal of the event. Versus the event where you’re in a ping-pong tournament against your CEO, and now suddenly the CEO who used to terrify you when she walks down the hallway is giving you high fives for the next couple of weeks.
One of the biggest drivers of tomo is feeling like you’re progressing in your career. So the kind of connectivity that unlocks new opportunities is super-valuable too. The organizations that really enable promotions and career advancement have done things like define the skills that are valuable in different roles, so that employees can realize that just because they have a finance role today doesn’t mean that they’re not building many of the same skills that marketers use or that analysts use.
Evie Nagy finds play in coming up with a new bio for each story she writes.