Does company culture affect employee motivation? No - and yes

Jerome Parisse-Brassens


Elements that are more likely to directly impact employee motivation are short-term factors such as pay, working conditions, work-life balance, working from home flexibility and other perks (think pool tables, gym memberships, on-site creches, great canteens, etc). Increase everyone’s pay by 5% or 10% and the motivation of your people will increase dramatically. However, it will be short-lived and once other factors take precedence again, you might be back to square one.
Another critical factor in employee motivation is the direct manager. If she is empowering, strategic, caring, results-oriented, constructively challenging and collaborative, her people are bound to have a high-degree of motivation. If on the contrary, the manager is top-down, distant, focused on the task and arrogant, motivation of his people might be low. We’ve all heard the phrase “You don’t leave a company, you leave a manager” (although I don’t always agree with it, as you will see below).


Several of my recent client assignments have been for organisations whose employee engagement scores remained low despite efforts to support people, great business results, and leadership attempts to redress scores. What I found in each case is that culture was a key factor driving low engagement and motivation.

Think of an organisation with a higher purpose that everyone rallies to. It’s so uplifting that people join the organisation because they want to be part of that purpose and make a difference. After the honeymoon period where they see everything through rose-coloured glasses, they discover a world of complexity where decision-making is tortuous and where it takes forever to get anything done. Gone the dream of being able to make a difference. Motivation plummets. Good people might even leave.

Think of a financially successful organisation that delivers essential services to the community. Leaders don’t realise they are distant. They develop strategies and make decisions in an ivory tower, then send the information down for implementation. They believe they know what’s needed. They hear but don’t truly listen, and never act on the feedback they receive. Motivation plummets. Good people might even leave.

Yes, healthy cultures contribute to high employee motivation (without being the sole factor). And yes, unhealthy cultures often lead to low employee motivation. If employee engagement has been low for some time in your business, you might want to diagnose your culture to see if the cause of all your troubles might not lie there.

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