Article: What Motivates People

Top performers and slackers

According to Quantum Workspace, employee engagement in the U.S. has declined drastically since the beginning of the economic crisis. More than 66% of polled employees in over 5000 companies claimed that their motivation is gone. Corporate Leadership Council numbers confirm: where so far one out of every ten employees had mentally checked out, now close to seven aren’t willing to go the extra mile, talk positively about the employer, or to simply continue working for them. Even though companies are in the same boat, these numbers cannot be ignored. Engaged and committed employees can’t protect the company from an economic recession, but they can shield the company from declines in efficiency. Instead, the picture is characterized by anxiety and paralysis, caused by job uncertainty, restructuring, and lay-offs. In short: instead of inspiration and engagement, business is shaped by fear and frustration. Furthermore, above research emphasizes that especially top performers are willing to leave a company: every fourth top performer planned to change jobs within twelve months. Their unmotivated coworkers, on the other hand, sit it out: in the current economic climate, 25% more refrain from changing jobs compared to past years. If companies ignore the rising disengagement, they risk losing their top performers, while slackers stay.

This state-of-affairs demands business leaders to rethink their talent management: the challenge lies no longer in retaining employees, but in fostering a willingness to perform. Employers are challenged with questions that will shape their company’s future: In an environment shaped by stress, insecurity and budget cuts, how can we establish a corporate culture in which employees want to work? How can we reduce lethargy and inner resistances, so that the company can position itself ideally for the future with a bare-bone team? Thanks to Churchill we know: “Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it”. Every crisis bears an opportunity. But to discover and optimally benefit from it, companies need a creative and committed team    

Employee Engagement: A Shotgun Approach

The current market environment proves that existing employee engagement methods are reaching their limit. They are not sustainable, if all engagement indicators collapse as soon as the economic environment changes. Bonuses and other financial incentives might keep employees engaged, but the fact that team motivation declines as soon as bonuses fail to materialize, shows that money is only a manipulator after all. Financial incentives are welcome, but they cannot create the loyalty and engagement that’s required to succeed in the next decade. On top of that, budget cuts have rendered it impossible for many companies to make use this most common incentive method.


Increasingly, other engagement approaches are being deployed that aim at improving the overall well-being of employees – starting with gym memberships and flex time and reaching to massages, child-care and yoga classes. Without doubt, all of these methods help retain employees and even strengthen the corporate identity. But these benefits increasingly fall victim to the controller’s hatchet, too. More so– and this is crucial – all of these measures only provide a shotgun approach for employee engagement. They are offered without knowing the core desires of the employee.


Why is this important? Once a company knows the deeper needs of its employees, incentives can be developed that precisely match the employee’s desires. This direct match would not only save cost – for example, a bonus payment is often not necessary to motivate an employee – it also enables employees to develop their own incentives that motivate them to walk the extra mile: more engagement, more responsibility, more leadership.

The Key To Engaging Employees

According to a study by Yale University, 80% of our decisions are based on emotions and instincts. Less than 20% are based on logical thinking. This is in sharp contrast to current behaviors as well as communication and decision making processes in companies, which are typically based on rational thinking :

The same is true for bonuses and incentives. Their aim is to create an emotional bond, and yet, as the current economic environment demonstrates, this is wishful thinking. How much does an employee feel appreciated by a bonus if the behaviors in the organization – layoffs, structural changes, power struggles – demonstrate that the appreciation is nothing but a lip-service, and that in the end the employee is a mere chess figure?

To engage employees on a deeper level and to form a lasting bond to the organization, companies must speak to an employee’s innermost emotions. We call 3 these “Essences”, because they are the essence of what motivates us as individuals.

Definition: What are Essences?

Essences are the feeling states, the emotions that people feel when they have reached a goal. For example, if our goal is to have $5 million in our bank, is it not really the money that motivates us, but the feeling state we associate with wealth, such as freedom, appreciation, or relaxation. Essences are the driving force in our life. It’s not the money. They are the reason we get up in the morning with energy and purpose.

The objective of employee incentives or a powerful corporate identity is to create a strong emotional connection with employees and customers. However, the existing approaches are limited: First, they are usually developed without knowing the employee’s individual desires. Secondly, many employees are not even clear about their emotional desires in the first place. And lastly, many of the current corporate incentive or branding processes are not authentic; they can backfire and create more resistance than engagement.


While it is interesting that the Deutsche Bank uses an emotion as one of its central brand messages, “A Passion to Perform”, many people do not perceive this message as authentic. Rather than engagement, it creates unfulfilled expectations, disappointment and rejection.

Essences offer a solution to these problems: They distill core desires of an individual or a team, reflect these in effective incentives, and communicate an authentic message to employees and customers.

Essence: The driving force in our lives

Before we address the implication of Essences for organizations, it is helpful to get a better understanding of Essences and their relevance for decision making processes in the company. To help clarify, let’s take a brief look at human behaviors:

 From dawn until dusk, our life is driven by desires. We get up in the morning with the desire for coffee or tea. In the evening, we sit on the couch with the desire to watch a movie or to read a book. Every minute of our life is driven by desires and decisions. Small ones like the ones just mentioned, or larger ones like the desire for a fulfilling relationship or a successful career, money, a house in the mountains, or a Porsche in the garage. It is critical, however, that it we are not driven by the material desires, but the feelings and emotions we hope to attain once we reach these goals. Money, the house in the mountains, or the Porsche can provide the feeling of freedom, status, or relaxation, for example; a loving relationship or successful career the feeling of fulfillment or achievement.

 This subtle difference – whether we are striving for material goals or the emotions and feelings associated with those – the Essences – is important for the following reasons: First, we may never reach our material goals. Possibly, we might never be able to afford a Porsche. For our entire life, we would be chasing the carrot, typically resulting in much frustration and exhaustion. Second, once we do get the Porsche, we usually discover quite soon that it does not deliver the fulfillment we hoped for. We usually experience the feeling of elation for few days, weeks, or Definition: What are Essences? Essences are the feeling states, the emotions that people feel when they have reached a goal. For example, if our goal is to have $5 million in our bank, is it not really the money that motivates us, but the feeling state we associate with wealth, such as freedom, appreciation, or relaxation. Essences are the driving force in our life. It’s not the money. They are the reason we get up in the morning with energy and purpose. Example: While it is interesting that the Deutsche Bank uses an emotion as one of its central brand messages, “A Passion to Perform”, many people do not perceive this message as authentic. Rather than engagement, it creates unfulfilled expectations, disappointment and rejection. 4 months, but soon, the daily grind kicks in and our emotional barometer goes back to normal. Third, an most important, is that while we might never become a lucky Porsche owner, nothing prevents us from living the Essences that we associate with driving the Porsche in the first place. Let’s assume one of our Essences is the feeling of freedom, our hair blowing in the wind when we drive the Porsche down the coast. We can experience the identical feeling of freedom as we take a walk on the beach, a bike cruise or while jogging through the woods. As humans we don’t differentiate how we experience an emotion. This allows our Essences to be fulfilled in many different ways.

 If we determine the desires in every area of our life, such as money, career, relationship, family, personal development or fitness, we find that we desire very much the same in every area. Our entire life is driven by no more than about a dozen Essences. For example we search for freedom in our career, relationship, and personal growth; joy and ease are usually drivers in every area of our life. This bouquet of Essences is what motivates us. Essences are the reason we rise with energy and zest in the morning. They keep us engaged, even when the going gets tough. Essences connect employees to an organization, even when there are dark clouds on the horizon.

Life is a feeling experience, not a doing experience. If our Essences are fulfilled, we are happy and satisfied with our life. If they remain unfulfilled, struggle and frustration set in – with or without a full bank account.    

Essences: A new leadership tool

Especially in times of crisis, Essences are an important tool for organizational effectiveness. If managers succeed in fulfilling the Essences of their employees, they bind them to the company, because any reason for a job change is eliminated. The question is, how to determine the Essences, and management can fulfill them for the company employees.

Employee’s essences are determined quite easily: In questionnaires that are best completed as part of personnel development, strategy or feedback processes, employees state their expectations, desires and wishes in various areas of their lives. This is usually a positive process in itself, because employees are asked what they really want from their career and life: it shifts the focus from the business to supporting the employee. The employee typically views the questionnaire approach as an indication that the employer truly cares about the employee’s well-being.


In a second step, the employee’s Essences can be distilled from the results. This process, too, is usually a light bulb moment as employees gain a new 5 understanding what energizes and drives them in life. Once participants realize that their life, work, or relationships are for example driven by driven by joy, ease, inspiration, and trust, instead of material outcomes, they are able to change the circumstances that cause frustration and conflict in their lives.


Lastly, because employees are now clear what they want from their employer, they themselves can suggest how to best fulfill their Essences. An employee desiring more freedom, for example, might suggest to telecommute one day a week or to work flexible hours.


Even though some suggestions will always be unrealistic for the organization, we have found that most can easily be realized at very little or no cost. The result is increased motivation, higher team responsibility and a deepening trust between employees and management. Employees become accountable for their own well-being and are less likely to shift responsibility to the company.


Because a conversation about Essences and possible incentives is conducted individually with each employee, the CBI Essence-Based Engagement Model can be fine-tuned directly to the team’s desires. Instead of a gym membership for selected employees, everyone obtains the incentive that fulfills their individual Essences. Appreciation, for example, is not only expressed through praise and bonus payments, but by using direct measures that fulfill the employee’s Essence.

Essences: Your company's values

In another step, the Essences of a team can be consolidated for the entire company or certain departments within an organization. Compared to many conventional approaches for creating an organization’s value system, Core Essences are not an abstract description of an organization’s values, which, after spending a lot of time and money, are often lifeless imprints on a marble plate in the lobby. Essence-Based Values, on the other hand, reflect what moves a team at its core. They are lived and breathed by the team every day. They are authentic and therefore build an ideal base for developing a compelling corporate culture and brand.

Clear Decision Making

Once an organization has gained clarity about its Core Essences, they ultimately serve as guidance for decision processes. Let’s assume that a company has inspiration, creativity, integrity, and growth as its Core Essences. It is then possible to align personnel and company 6 decisions with these Essences. For example, when an opportunity to close a lucrative contract arises, revenue potential is usually the key decision criteria, often without paying attention whether integrity, inspiration, or creativity are fulfilled. With every one of these decisions, the company compromises its integrity as it distances itself from its values. As a result, leadership authenticity, inspiration and retention of top talent are sacrificed. However, as Essences are used as a litmus test for important decisions, they keep a company on track, keeping executives focused on the organization’s mission, vision, and values. While strategy and products change over time, Essences and values of a company are timeless.

In a similar way, Essences support personnel decisions. When hiring new employees, the use of Essences can easily determine what motivates a candidate. Why do they want to work in the company? What do they expect from the organization? Essences reveal whether potential employees support the values of the company or whether they live according to a principally different set of values. In the latter case, retaining employees will always remain difficult.


The economic crisis confronts organizations with complex challenges. Previous employee engagement models are reaching their limits. Employees are exposed to a high level of uncertainty, and companies are facing the risk of losing top talent – even though not necessarily physically, but increasingly mentally. To engage employees on a deeper level, companies have to go beyond linear arguments and financial perks – executives have to appeal to the emotions and instincts of their team. Essences provide a new approach to emotionally engage and motivate employees, to assists team members in their growth, and to create increased accountability and responsibility. Managers obtain a new tool to keep their team engaged at a cost that is substantially lower than most existing incentive models. Essences become the fabric of an organization. They reflect the core values of an organization and serve as a compass for critical decisions.

Background of the Essence Model: 

The Essence Model™ was developed by partners of the Conscious Business Institute in California. It is based on experience of managers, turnaround consultants, human development experts and venture capitalists, who observed recurring problems and conflicts in hundreds of businesses over a time period of 18 years. When working in the Private Equity markets, partners of the Conscious Business Institute realized that millions of dollars were lost, because teams repeatedly failed because of the same reasons. Based on these experiences, the Conscious Business Institute and human development experts jointly developed new models for management, employee engagement, and organizational growth    

Peter Matthies
Founder - The Conscious Business Institute