Maintaining researchers’ motivation

Maintaining the enthusiasm and commitment of your team for the duration of a project can be a challenge.

Some factors that have an impact on a researcher's motivation, such as institutional salary levels or the wider job market, may be out of your control but there are  important factors that you can influence.

Many of you, in your efforts to attract funding, offer to do a lot with very little.
This means that you need both individual team members and your team as a whole to be well-motivated. Motivation is one of the challenges that is most frequently raised by research leaders: you have a vision of where you want to take your team - can you motivate them to follow?

Here are three broad strategies for maintaining the motivation of staff in your team.

  • Recognise and praise: recognising and praising the work your researchers do, both the quality of the work and the effort they put into it, is something that is too easily forgotten, especially in busy periods. You may have high expectations of the standard of work you require from your researchers but explicitly recognising when they meet those expectations is essential to maintaining the morale of your team
  • provide challenges and responsibility - people are much more likely to give their work their full attention and effort when they feel they are being challenged. Constantly repeating familiar tasks or working within a comfort zone will test the motivation of even the most conscientious researcher. Being confronted with new challenges and invited to take on further responsibilities can motivate and give a sense of achievement
  • develop your staff - giving your researchers the sense that they are developing their skills and moving forwards in their career can be very motivating. Look at sections on supporting professional development and career development for more information.

Understanding the motivation to work

There's a huge literature on motivation, which you can explore through a library on on the worldwide web. What follows is an outline of just one perspective based on research in the field.

Frederick Herzberg formulated the influential ‘Motivation-Hygiene' theory of management in ‘The Motivation to Work' (co-authored with Bernard Mausner and Barbara Bloch Snyderman) in 1959.

Herzberg argues here that what motivates workers are not factors which are opposites of the factors that de-motivate them. Issues such as salary levels, working conditions and company policy, when unsatisfactory, will have an adverse effect on a worker's motivation. However, when those issues are no longer a problem, they do not begin to act as a positive motivation in themselves.

The analogy with hygiene is the dirty bathroom, where the poor conditions deter people from using it. However once the cleanliness has reached a satisfactory level, there is no motivation to use the bathroom more, regardless of how extra hard it is cleaned.

The factors that will actually motivate staff, argues Herzberg, are achievement, recognition, the nature of the work itself, responsibility and advancement.

Read more about Hertzberg's theory and the practice of motivating staff.

You may also be interested in pages on setting expectations and monitoring progress.