It seems the HR industry is mostly focused on employee recognition and performance review systems as a means of how to motivate employees. Anyone who’s been through an employee review process or had to provide them to their “direct reports” can attest to the arcane and often demeaning nature of employee reviews. It’s as if we’re saying their worth as a human being is tied to their specific performance metrics, which a good portion of are tied to company culture. It puts the lion’s share of the focus on the employee and not on the culture.

In the Indigenous mindset this would be upside down. It’s also contrary to a good amount of social science research and the landmark book by Jim Collins, Good To Great that was based on a five-year research project that carefully measured break out companies, “Great Companies” and their cultures, practices, and values as compared to a control group of companies that are just “Good Companies.” Collins writes, “One of the dominant themes that runs through this book is that if you successfully implement its findings, you will not need to spend time and energy “motivating” people. If you have the right people on the bus, they will be self-motivated.”

Daniel Pink wrote in the bestselling book Drive, “Too many organizations…still operate from assumptions about human potential and individual performance that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in science.” Pink speaks of “intrinsic motivation,” the motivation that we all inherently possess to want to do good work simply for the sake of doing good work.

The question of how to motivate employees becomes somewhat amorphous until we peel away the layers of the onion to get to the core of what drives us. Collins suggests that it has more to do with having “the right people on the bus;” having the team of what he refers to as “level five leaders” which are strongly driven by the need to do good work. And Pink refers to “intrinsic motivation;” that we are all fundamentally driven to do good work and that we need to avoid doing those things that demotivate people.

Indigenous Principles as a Pathway to How To Motivate Employees

The pathway to finding and retaining “the right people on the bus” and to creating an environment that does not get in the way of the “intrinsic motivation” of our people is through a constant, concerted, and authentic focus on culture. We might be successful at attracting some amazing people, but we won’t retain them if our culture is not suited to supporting their intrinsic motivation.

The pathway to discovery is pointing in the direction of the humanization of the business environment. The Indigenous elders teach us that to live is to be, and in order to be we must remember, or discover who we are, which includes discovering the core values and principles that we feel fundamentally attuned to. Without knowing who we are, we can’t authentically be who we are. Encoded in the fabric of every Indigenous Society is a process for the constant perpetuation of its culture. The business takeaway is that culture is paramount, not just something to shove off to the future to think about when the balance sheet and cash flow are looking good.

The Indigenous Elders tell us to discover who we are. Discovering organizational culture is much the same – organizational self-examination. Once we know who we are, we hire people based on their congruency with our culture (“getting the right people on the bus”), next we humanize our culture to retain the great people and empower their “intrinsic motivation.”