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On Motivation

March 1st, 2021

A frequently asked question by people in management positions is “how do you motivate employees?”

The first thing to understand is that the word “motivation” is a compilation of two words: motive + action = [a person’s] motive for action. When defined in this way it could be said that the “action” piece may be positive, neutral, or negative. The second point is that the direction of action will be driven by the interaction of two more factors: the aspirations and attitude of the person and the environment in which s/he is working.

The attitude and aspirations of a person should have been identified at the time of the interview appointment but that’s another story. Suffice it to say here that if you find post-hiring you’ve made a mistake then fire the person – that’s what a 3-month probationary period is all about. Hire slowly and fire fast should be your mantra and failing that you’ll just have to live with the problem you’ve created.

Getting back to the people on your payroll. The Gallup organization tells us from its surveys of hundreds of thousands of employees around the world since 2000 that most employees are disengaged.  For example, the 2020 survey in the US indicates that 36% of employees are engaged, 50% are not engaged, and 14% are actively disengaged.

The “14% are actively disengaged” classification is a nice way of saying they’re bordering on being inside terrorists and are actively working on building the disengaged group. But from the point of view of the culture of an organization, the “not engaged” cohort is arguably just as dangerous.

Gallup defines this cohort as being “psychologically unattached to their work and company. These employees put time, but not energy or passion, into their work. Not engaged employees typically show up to work and contribute the minimum effort required. They’re also on the lookout for better employment opportunities and will quickly leave their company for a slightly better offer.”

I advise every business manager who raises the question of motivation to immediately visit Gallup’s site and have your employees complete the Q12 questionnaire and access an amazing suite of resources, most of which are free. Click here to get to the site.

Returning to my definition of motivation I think it’s important to realize that given the “right” circumstances most people are motivated. Those circumstances are where you get intrinsic enjoyment from what you’re doing. A lot’s been written about this, but I think the best way to understand it is to draw on your own personal experience by reflecting on the circumstances in which you have been motivated as an employee.

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us suggests (click here to view his famous TED talk) that you need to create an environment that gives employees autonomy, mastery (meaning an opportunity to grow), and a sense of purpose. I believe he’s on the money and the best places I’ve worked have done just that.

I wonder how many organizations do that?  Not many I suspect. A quick perusal of a businesses’ P&L Statement gives an insight into this. In the 2020 Good, Bad, and Ugly Report on the accounting profession in Australia by Business Fitness indicates that the median salaries and wages expense for firms surveyed was the largest expense (as you would expect) at 38% but the investment in professional development and training was less that 1% and only a little more than money spent on postage and stationery. Go figure!

BTW, I think the GBU Report is well worth investing in for any Australian firm (and the Rosenberg Survey in the US) that’s serious about running a better business.  It give you industry intel and insights that will give you cause to reflect on your performance and areas in which you should give some management and strategic attention.

One of the things that I consider to have been a major driver of motivation for me and that is also completely consistent with Pink’s thoughts is the sense of pride I have had the work I’ve done in various roles, the organizations I’ve worked for, and their purpose.

Pride is considered to be THE major motivator by Jon Katzenbach in Why Pride Matters More than Money.  He suggests pride is driven by the perception team members have that is reflected by the following questions:

  1. What do my family and friends think about the business I’m employed by?
  2. What do people think about the products and services I work on?
  3. How do our customers I serve, directly or otherwise and internal as well as external, regard the usefulness of what I do?
  4. Do I respect the skills, values, and work effort of the people with whom I work?
  5. Do people I work with and admire really respect what I do and how I try to do it?
  6. Are we performing well compared with our rivals because of what I do?

It would be interesting to do a correlation analysis between the responses to appropriately framed  set of these six questions and the Gallup Q12 questionnaire using a Likert scale. My guess is that there would be a high correlation between positive engagement and pride.

While I can agree with Katzenbach’s suggestion that pride is important I believe it’s more likely to be the result of a culture that addresses what Tony Robbins calls the six basic human needs:

Certainty – people like to feel secure in the knowledge that the business in which they are employed has a positive future based on a sound, relatable vision

Variety – but they also like pleasant surprises which makes the day and the job interesting. If everything was predictable life would not be much of a challenge.

Significance – and they want to feel that what they do matters, and their contribution is acknowledged and appreciated

Connection – humans started in tribes and seek tribal-like connection with people who share their values and importantly, support them

Growth – we have an innate desire to get better; you only need to observe people taking up a new sport or skill-based project that connects with their passion. This is one of the keys Dan ink refers to.

Purpose – Robbins sometimes refers to it as contributing beyond ourselves. Achievers have a strong need to not only leave a legacy but to live a legacy.

On examination every one of these needs can be addressed by management.  It starts by having and communicating a clear and appealing vision for the business and its primary purpose, backed by an inclusive management style supported by clear decision rights, accountability, and transparency. When people know where they’re going, why the journey is worth their effort, and they feel they’re contributing members of a team pulling in the same direction, it’s not difficult for them to be motivated.

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