There is almost a century of research on human motivation, but many people have misread it. The most important early research was the Hawthorne Project in the 1920s. It took place at the Western Electric plant outside of Chicago. The key finding was that the productivity of the employees of the bank wiring room rose no matter how the lighting conditions were manipulated. The primary reason was that management was paying attention to them. Keep that in mind.

The two most famous motivation theories grew out of the work of Abraham Maslow and Frederick Herzberg mostly in the 1950s through the 1970s. I spent some time with both men. They were quite different. Abe was average size, quiet, obviously brilliant and had a warm sense of humor. Fred was tall and lanky. He was energetic, outgoing, almost brash, but very friendly.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is well known. Motivation grows as a person’s needs: physiological, safety, socialization (love), self-esteem and self-actualization are satisfied. The obvious extension is that as needs are satisfied performance and retention improve.

Herzberg differentiated motivation into short (hygiene) and long (motivator) stimulants. Prominent among the motivators is recognition. Again, the personal relationship is essential for ongoing performance.

I don’t mean to put myself on their level, but in the late 1970s I ran two research projects to learn what drove employee productivity and commitment. In the first I focused on what employees want to hear from their company. Since communication is at the heart of motivation I thought this would be useful. I learned that employees most want to hear topics that directly affect them, such as compensation, benefits and work goals. Most importantly, they want to hear it directly from their supervisor. This is the key point, i.e., a trusting relationship is essential.

The second project sought to learn which of sixteen factors most affected performance. I learned that the job itself was most critical because it gave the person a sense of value leading to self-esteem – the strongest motivator.

Later, I spoke with the people who founded The Best Company to Work For survey that appears annually in Fortune magazine. They told me unequivocally that the single most important factor is trust, trust in management.

If you put it all together it seems to consistently show that motivation, and ensuing performance, is based on recognition of the person and their needs, even more than money. What a surprise.

This also applies to healthy personal relationships.