Personal Motivation & Careers

Cite this article as:"Personal Motivation & Careers," in The Business Professor, updated September 3, 2019, last accessed August 3, 2020,

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In this article, we discuss a specific benefit of understanding job duties, responsibilities, and career paths.

What to Pursue

In business, there are countless jobs in many diverse fields.

Too often, I talk with business students who have a very poor understanding of the various career fields, jobs, and job functions of individuals outside of their chosen career paths.

These students study in career fields that they did not fully understand. When they realize their interests don’t align well with job opportunities, they often struggle to find a position in another career field that is a better fit.

I’ve also worked with students who begin in a career field that they love. Ultimately, they promote into a position with responsibilities that do not interest them at all. In these scenarios, if other motivational factors are not present, these professional suffer from low motivation and engagement in their work duties.

So, the first benefit of understanding various business careers can help you in determining what immediate jobs and what career tracks you may want to follow.

Of course, there will be trade-offs in any position. It’s important to understand that it may be necessary to work for a period of time in a job that is less engaging in hopes of earning a more desired position in the future.

In any event, understanding job responsibilities and career paths is essential.

Personal Motivation (Engagement)

We often think that finding a job in an industry that that excites or interests us should be our goal. In reality, the job industry is one of many factors that will determine job satisfaction and performance.

Individuals should seek to be engaged in any activity that they undertake. An “engaged” employee is productive. Restated, research has shown that employees perform at a far higher level (i.e., the results of their effort is superior) when they are engaged in their work. Engagement can mean a number of things in the employment context. I use it to refer to the level of mental presence an employee has when addressing work tasks. Characteristics of mental presence are focus, dedication and the effort applied to a task or objective.

Engagement is directly related to “motivation”. A primary source or employee engagement comes from motivation. Motivation is a cognitive state or mentality. Motivation is directly related to an individual’s level of engagement. The question thus becomes, what can motivate and thereby engage individuals in their tasks, functions, jobs, careers? There is no simple answer. What motivates individuals is based largely upon their interests, values, beliefs, attitudes, emotions (fear and joy), etc. When the task or goal is employment related, we have to look first to the internal needs of an individual. From there, we can begin to examine the aspects that job that will meet these internal needs. Company factors affecting an individual’s motivation include the characteristics of the company, management, team orientation, mission,work environment, colleagues, reports, reputation, reward systems, or other characteristics that affect the individual employees mental disposition toward the employment relationship. Motivating employees, or facilitating the presence of factors to motivate an employee, is the realm of leadership study. These motivational factors cause the employee to undertake activities or tasks in a manner that moves the company in the desired direction. This leadership objective crosses over into management (which is the marshaling of resources), as managers are in the position to serve as leaders and work to motivate the employees they manage.

Individuals are motivated to fulfill personal needs or wants. Much research supports the theory that the level of employee engagement is largely dependent upon the personal needs of the employee. Recall some of the psychological models that exist identifying human need. The most well-known is Maslow’s hierarchy.

These models demonstrate the psychological characteristics of the employee that constitute a valid need or want. As such, the employee can be motivated by any incentive that meets these needs. For example, employment may provide funds to purchase food, which is a basic need. For some employees, a job that provides money to purchase food is enough to motivate them and create engagement. The level of engagement may be strengthened when the employee does not perceive other options than this job for meeting this need. For other employees, the work task or objective may need to fulfill the need for self-actualization (e.g., recognition from respected individuals). If the employee feels like they receive praise and credit from for their efforts, this may motive and cause employee engagement. In any event, there is a definite relationship between the personal values of the employee, the motivation to undertake a task or activity, and the engagement when undertaking that task.

Search for opportunities (engaging activities) that engage you. Given the correlation between engagement and performance, individuals wishing to perform well on a long-term basis should seek to identify activities that engagement them. The positive effects associated with engaged activity increase the likelihood of successful completion and performance of those activities. This concept applies to career choices. Plainly stated, engaged work is generally done well. Performing well lends itself to proficiency in the function and the perception of competency by third parties. A perception of competency in one’s functions creates additional security that an employer will retain you to continue carrying on that activity. Continued demonstration of competency is often a signal to employers that an employee is ready for additional responsibilities. These additional tasks or responsibilities may provide additional motivation and lead to employee engagement. Alternatively, additional tasks or responsibilities may entail additional benefits that provide the employee with greater motivation and engagement. For example, it may lead to higher salary, additional benefits, improved social status, more favorable reporting structure, improved work conditions, greater operational resources, etc. Unfortunately, high performance in a given set of tasks or responsibilities does not always ensure that an individual will perform well in other tasks. Rather, continued high performance turns again on whether an individual remains engaged in the new or additional responsibilities. As we discuss below, a number of factors (both internal and external) contribute to whether an employee will remain engaged in the additional responsibilities.

There are any number of types of internal need and methods by which an employer/employment environment could meet those needs. Some examples might include:

  • High or Low Organization/Task Structure
  • Creativity and Autonomy in Decision Making
  • Recognition for Work / Notoriety
  • Social Stature: Title
  • Power/Influence
  • Reporting Structure
  • Group/Individual Work Structure
  • Job Security
  • Amount of Compensation or Other Employment Benefits
  • Compensation Structure: Fixed vs Performance-Based
  • Projects or Finite Work Tasks
  • Work Mission / Impact
  • Industry Interest

This are just examples of the innumerable aspects of employment that could meet our internal needs.

Enjoyment is not the same thing as engagement. Let’s begin with the proposition that engaged work is productive and effective work. While an employee may also be engaged in work that she finds enjoyable, enjoyment of a task or objective does not always correlate with high levels of performance. Think of an individual who enjoys golf. Enjoying the undertaking does not mean that the individual will perform well when undertaking the sport. An individual who is engaged in the activity of golf will generally work to perform that activity well. This may mean working diligently (perhaps past the point of enjoyment) to carry out the activities well. Also, an individual who enjoys playing golf may not fully enjoy a position giving golf lessons or coordinating operations for a golf tournament. The personal engagement derived from playing may not translate into engagement from simply working as part of the game.

Not all tasks and functions will engage you. High performance in a position that does not engage you is difficult is absolutely necessary in the short term. Individuals must find a temporary source of motivation. It is certainly possible to perform well in the short-term due to strength of effort. In the long term, however, artificially manufacturing a source of motivation will rarely created sustained, high-level performance. The person’s performance is likely to be pale in comparison to the performance of a equally talented but more engaged employee. With this in mind, it is important when searching for positions that including engagement activities but also have potential to progress or evolve into tasks, functions, or responsibilities that engage you. This will assure that, as the your position responsibilities change, you maintain a level of motivation and engagement. You may have previously been told that you will have to pay your dues (i.e., work at tasks or in positions that you may not enjoy) in order to arrive at where you want to be. That can be true; however, it may be your long-term objective or goal that is the motivating factor that creates engagement in your work. In this way, you are engaged less by the tasks or responsibilities than by what successful completion of those tasks or performance may yield. Absent this focus on future career advancement, your performance will suffer in a position characterized by tasks, functions, or responsibilities that do not motivate you or create the engagement necessary for higher-level performance.

Using Knowledge of Career Paths in Networking

Regardless of the job position you seek or the career path you plan to pursue, understanding other job functions and career paths can be very useful. It is particularly useful when networking.

In our article on network, One-On-One Networking, we discuss the process of breaking the ice, creating rapport, and communicating about one’s self. It can be quite difficult to both break the ice and establish a meaningful conversations with individuals about whom we know very little or with whom we have little in common. This is where it becomes beneficial to understand various career paths.

Asking questions about the other person’s position, career history, or aspirations can be a mutually engaging topic of conversation. You do not want to be limited to networking with individuals specifically in your career path. Often, the individuals in jobs or career paths that are not related to your own can be equally beneficial for creating opportunities. For example, meeting an vice president in any area of a company in which you wish to work can be highly beneficial. They have the ability to recommend or introduce you to individuals within the department of the company in which you wish to work.


In conclusion, understanding various job duties and career paths can assist you in choosing a career field, identifying positions and employment environments that engage you, and in networking with other professionals.

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