“Why are you motivating your employees?”
You might be surprised I am even asking this question. It’s obvious isn’t it? Motivated employees are good for the bottom line.
This, of course, is true. However, I want to call attention to a counterproductive trend in employee motivation practices, one which occurs when companies want a quick-fix for their “motivation problem.”
Google the phrase, “how to motivate employees,” and you will encounter a flood of “5 true and tested ways…” clickbait.
It’s not that the information is wholly useless. It’s just only really useful if the employer is hoping to get something for nothing. The content may well teach leverage, strategy, and a slew of other psychological hacks – but none of it is true motivation.
By offering their employees “free stuff,” employers hope to pocket the fruits of enthusiastically performed labor at minimal cost. The problem is – none of us were born yesterday.
While non-monetary enticement is linked to increased productivity, motivation is a different game for two reasons.
First, motivation is a much more complex animal than this approach gives it credit. Second, doing so effectively announces that the employer’s bottom line is more important than the employee’s. Not very motivational, huh?
So what is motivation anyways?
Good question, now we are making progress.
Motivation is defined as, “internal and external factors that stimulate an individual to remain interested and committed to a specific task, role or subject.”
In other words, the driving force behind an individual’s continued, enthusiastic action. In a perfect world (or workplace) motivation is comprised from a yin yang of intrinsic and extrinsic elements.
It is no secret that external factors, such as salary, do some heavy lifting. Equally important, however, is the more elusive ‘intrinsic motivation,’ derived from a deep inner sense of purpose and satisfaction with the work itself.
Employees with a “motivation problem” are usually competent, intelligent individuals who are simply lacking affirmation on one or both sides of this spectrum.
Money as a last resort
Imagine the following scenario: your boss calls you in for the last in a series of motivational efforts. He sits you down, sighing heavily.
“Well, Phil, I don’t know what to tell you. We’ve tried everything to get your numbers up – happy hours, leadership recognition, small stock in the company – and none of it seems to work. I’m afraid we have no other choice than to give you a raise.”
Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? Yet that is exactly what the “research” on motivation suggests should happen.
The point here is not to tout money as a fix-all for employee motivation, but rather to draw attention to a subtle but pervasive underlying mechanism: employee motivation as we know it, is transactional, employer-centered, and only indirectly beneficial to the employee.
We Need to Change The Way We Think About Motivation
With all that said, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Once you see the smoke for what it is, psychological tricks, you can easily identify its trappings and work on your own terms. You may find that gentle coercion is how you wish to proceed.
Nevertheless, many employers out there are sincerely trying to motivate employees. Choosing an alternative approach to motivation doesn’t mean abandoning your return on investment. It means following the notion of motivation to its logical conclusion:
Adopt a people-centered approach
Positive forms of encouragement which have proven useful to organizations are those which align the organization’s interest with those of its stakeholders.
That means individuals, both within and without the organization – employees, CEO’s, the general public, the environment and so forth.
The key thing is to remain focused on people – an individualized approach to understanding who works for you.
Use positive reinforcement
We can probably all agree that motivation is best accomplished by means that the subjects deem positive.
Negative means of “encouragement” – those which leave poor Phil terrified and sleepless at night – are not only ineffective but generally outside the realm of what most people intuitively consider encouragement.
Create a culture where praise and recognition is given generously where it is deserved.
It is crucial to keep in mind that the workforce of the future will be comprised of individuals who are highly sensitive to social, political and environmental issues – all of which are heading in an increasingly progressive direction.
This gives businesses an opportunity to prove to their employees that doing more for the organization truly means doing more for themselves. This can be done by aligning the brand with strong values and contributing to philanthropic causes.
The Cost of Motivating Employees
There is a price tag on true motivation.
Let’s examine the alternate scenario: ignoring the motivation shaped elephant in the room may lead to high turnover rate, costing the company money in wasted training, lowered morale and productivity.
Deciding to put effort into employee motivation will require a meaningful investment, but if your goal is to truly motivate them – to empower them – then you have to be willing to make that investment.
In the long run, truly aligning your interests with those of the people who work for you will make you more than an employer, it will make you a leader.