Is a pat on the back better than sex?

In these troubled financial times managers around the world have been looking at other ways to boost employee engagement when financial remuneration hasn't been available to them.  New research at an American university reveals that self-esteem boosts are more highly rated than sex, which given how highly sexed most university students are is quite a claim indeed.

According to the research by Brad Bushman and his co-workers, not only do American university students have higher self-esteem than previous generations, they now value self-esteem boosts more than sex, food, receiving a salary payment, seeing a friend or having an alcoholic drink.

Bushman and his team asked the students to imagine their favourite food, sexual activity, self-esteem boosting activity (such as receiving a compliment).  In each case they were asked to relay how much they liked it and how much they wanted it.  They discovered that self-esteem boosts were the most popular.

maslowTo test these findings, students were asked to take a simple verbal intelligence test, and then asked to wait around for 10 minutes for the results.  Interestingly, those that said previously that they wanted self-esteem boosts more than they like them stayed around for the results in much higher numbers than the other students.


Now we've known that self-esteem is crucial ever since Maslow and his hierachy of needs placed it as the 2nd most sought after 'need'.  What this research does do however is reinforce the point that esteem doesn't have to be delivered in financial ways, but that in our financially challenged times it should not be neglected as your team will suffer if you do neglect their egos.  It also supports other work suggesting that employees with high self esteem perform better.

So how can you boost the self esteem of your team?

  1. Say thank you.  Research by OC Tanner suggest saying a simple 'thank you' raises employee engagement by as much as 30%
  2. Don't assume people know.  If you think someone is doing a good job, don't assume they know, tell them, and tell them immediately.  Give feedback little and often.
  3. Invest in them.  Show how much you appreciate them by supporting their training and development.
  4. Create small wins.  Research shows that long projects struggle to engage staff, so break them down into smaller tasks that boost esteem with each win.

What other ways can you boost esteem?



"New research at an American university reveals that self-esteem boosts are more highly rated than sex..."

Sounds like they're not doing it right. ;)


Financial reward is (in my opinioin), as Frederick Herzberg describes, a hygiene factor.  The absence or withholding of a financial reward will demotivate but the presence or award of same will not motivate or engage, it's effect is neutral.

I think the keys to employee engagement have remained fairly static, things like being allocated "meaningful work" suggesting trust; recognition and praise (non-financial) for good work; support and a sense of being part of a team; being empowered and provided with opportunities to grow and develop etc.

Gallup created the Q12 over a number of years suggesting that the drivers for engagement are static and can be measured consistently over a long period of time and it's interesting that financial reward or recognition never made the top 12.

Based on the evidence from Q12 and the premise financial reward is a "hygiene factor", it actually fits with Maslow's heirarchy / pyramid very well - sex is a basic human need / desire and sits very low in the pyramid; money is probably closely linked in terms of where it would appear in the pyramid (i.e. a fairly basic need) but recognition; development and growth lead to self-actualisation which is at the very pinnacle of the pyramid.

The headline's a real grabber but the concept and the fundemental findings have been in Maslow's pyramid for a long time, we're just "re-discovering" them because we're skint!

What we forgot was that the pursuit of copious amounts of personal wealth is actually just greed by another name and that, in reality, we need enough to clothe; shelter; buy food and water etc and the rest is 'desire' rather than 'require'.  Once we have "enough" money, it stops motivating. 

Although with VAT hikes and pay freezes, perhaps it will start to become a motivator again soon!  Back to the bonus culture in no time.

That's very true Colin, yet employee engagement appears to be very low throughout the economy.  Something must be rotten in Denmark.  What is stopping people taking the steps to improve things?

Paul Johnson wrote:

"New research at an American university reveals that self-esteem boosts are more highly rated than sex..."

Sounds like they're not doing it right. ;)


Kids of today huh? *rolls eyes*

Adi Gaskell wrote:

Something must be rotten in Denmark.  What is stopping people taking the steps to improve things?

It's a difficult one which requires total conjecture on my behalf but I think people have forgotten how to manage.  There's so much pressure on achieving ever greater profits or achieving more and we've got to have a GDP graph that looks like the launch of a space rocket or we're a total failure as a nation, so it's a cultural thing in my opinion.

I read a report from a Scottish Government commissioned group just a few days ago that said (paraphrasing), because the Scottish Government don't have fiscal autonomy and are therefore unable to increase income via increased taxes (although they do actually have some limited tax raising powers), the only alternative to stimulate economic growth in Scotland is increased productivity.

I've said before on these fora I'm no economist but surely increased productivity is the preferred option and raising taxes the alternative and not the other way about!?!

For me, increasing income via tax is the EASY option but not necessarily the right one.  We should be investing in our future through investing in skills - better managers and increased engagement = better productivity and growth?

Trying to motivate people through the award or denial of bonus payments falls into the "tax" bracket for me - dead EASY, requires absolutely no skills and no effort and the return is equally shallow.

For me Performance = Ability x Effort (obligatory + discretionary); tap into the discretionay effort and you instantly increase performance and as the "McLeod Report" concluded, increased individual performance  = increased organisational performance ergo increased financial performance.

It's interesting that you mentioned empowerment earlier Colin.  I came across this research this morning that suggested that the key to employee engagement was autonomy.

Certainly underlines the notion of managers/leaders 'serving' those in their teams rather than the other way round.

Adi Gaskell wrote:

Certainly underlines the notion of managers/leaders 'serving' those in their teams rather than the other way round.

Hi Adi,

I've always liked the concept that the manager or leader plays a facilitation role to some degree rather than 'serving' as that tends to suggest a psychological heirarchy or vertical structure, be it official or unofficial, the suggestion being "power" lies somewhere in the relationship.

I think a more horizontal approach is better - we have different roles and responsibilities but a shared goal or objective.

I think the imperative is on the manager or leader to provide a culture / environment conductive to excellence and the achievement of whatever goals or objectives; to ensure adequate training and direction is provided; ensure resources are fully utilised at the right times etc.

It's a move away from the old "command and control" model of management.  I genuinely don't think there are many people who set out on their working day to do a bad job, so on the basis they're already motivated to a certain degree, the manager or leader should make sure the other factors assist the person in their pursuit to do a good job.

So "facilitation" would rank high in my 'perfect manager's' toolkit.

Facilitation should be what happens but I'm not sure it is.  I mean I've read on this blog a few times over the past few months that many managers display psychopathic and un-charitable tendancies once they reach positions of power.  That and the lack of self awareness showing that whilst people think they're great at managing people, more often than not they're rubbish at it.

It doesn't paint a rosy picture for facilitation being high up a managers toolkit.

Hi Matt,

Fair point but Mahatma Ghandi said "be the change you want to see in the world", so I guess we're back to needing some real leaders demonstrating some real management qualities.

I'm sure organisations such as CMI are already trying to make those changes through providing us with evidence based learning; some key skills and strategies and open debate with key policy influencers and makers, people just need to walk the talk in organisations and we'll be motoring along nicely.