“I think the challenge for many managers is not to bring out the best in their employees; instead, they ought to stop bringing out the worst in them…”
I left those words hanging in the air, waiting for a reaction.
As I did so, I could see the red mist rising in the faces of one or two around the table.?This is usually what happens when I make blanket statements like that. And the reddening faces are welcome, as I am intentionally being provocative when I say such things. After all, employee motivation is always a subject worthy of lively debate, which is precisely what I got once one of the red-faced participants decided to let loose.
Okay, it would be ludicrous to suggest that all managers bring out the worst in their employees – only a fool would propose something as inane as that. And in reality I was only pushing buttons to kick off the discussion. That said, many managers – often unintentionally – demotivate their people and that’s what I would like to focus upon in this article; how we can at times serve to reduce the motivational levels of our employees without actually intending to. Before I get to that issue, I would also like to quickly make the point that I have encountered a few managers, at various levels, over the years that by their poor management skills and styles have perhaps intentionally reduced the motivation levels of their people. But I don’t want to focus on such characters here.
Instead, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence, and indeed concrete research, which shows that managers can demotivate their employees without actually meaning to and I think that, no matter how many people you are responsible for? it’s worth asking yourself two important questions in this area:
1- Do you really understand what motivates your people – individually and collectively?
2- Are you consistently delivering on those expectations?
Let me give you a simple example of how there can be a mis-match at times between what managers believe, and what employees expect, in relation to motivation. I was recently chatting to the owner of a smallish business, with about 50 employees. Like everyone else, they have had a tough few years, but some time back the company had won a number of contracts which have more or less secured the medium-term future. Anyway, as a reward for their hard work, the owner explained how he and his managers decided to hold a party for employees as a sort of ‘thank you’ for their contribution.
Who wouldn’t want a party, right?
Well, actually, the event caused a fair few unexpected problems. For starters, as it was ‘employees only’, with no partners or spouses invited, this led to some people complaining about the idea; the word ‘cheapskates’ was bandied about apparently. Then, the event was held on a Saturday night, which meant that the younger crowd loved it, but the older, married types felt it was an imposition on their weekend and family time. As he recounted the general unhappiness surrounding the event, the owner was clearly frustrated that his efforts to do the ‘right thing’, had resulted in more hassle and grief than had he done nothing at all. In fact, he told me that one older employee had said to him after the party: “who wants to go out on a Saturday night and be reminded what it was like to be young.”?Bah! Humbug! and all that.
Okay, there were probably some underlying issues at play in that particular business, but my point here is that sometimes we de-motivate people unintentionally, because we assume we know what motivates them. On that topic, time and time again over the years, as part of training courses I have delivered, I have asked managers to list – in ranked order – what they believe are the top motivators for their employees.?I have later asked the employees to do the same.?And the lists NEVER match, and are often quite different indeed. In fact, the scale of the discrepancies is often quite shocking.
But, don’t just take my word for it about the extent of the mis-match.
A study on ‘What Really Motivates Workers’ by two researchers from Harvard – Prof. Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer – showed just how different employee and management perceptions can be on this issue. They surveyed more than 600 managers from a variety of companies asking them to rank the impact on employee motivation and emotions of five workplace factors commonly considered significant: 1. Recognition 2. Incentives 3. Interpersonal support 4. Support for making progress and 5. Clear goals. “Recognition” topped the list of the surveyed managers as regards what they felt most motivated their employees.
And that makes sense, I guess. But they were fairly wide of the mark as it turned out.
The researchers also tracked the day-to-day motivation levels of hundreds of employees, and they found that the top motivator of performance was actually ‘Making Progress’ (which incidentally was lowest ranked issue by the managers). The study showed that three-quarters of employees felt most highly motivated, not when they were recognized, but on days in which they were making progress.
Now, whether you agree or disagree with these specific findings is not necessarily the key point here; the real issue is that with such differing perspectives on what motivates employees, you might be doing things in your business that you believe will make a difference, when in fact such issues may not be all that important for your people. Or, maybe you are doing the right things, just not enough of them.
Evidence that this mis-match between what managers think, and what employees want, as regards motivators is to be found everywhere and the negative impact it has on motivation levels is not insignificant. For example, another Harvard study, ‘Why Your Employees Are Losing Motivation’ by David Sirota, Louis A. Mischkind, and Michael Irwin Meltzer made the not too surprising discovery that employees are generally highly enthusiastic and motivated when they start a new job. However, based on their surveys of about 1.2 million employees, they also found that, in about 85% of companies, employee morale sharply declined after their first six months and continued to deteriorate for years afterward.
And what were managers doing ‘wrong’?
Well, the researchers naturally found some intentional behaviors which were demotivating employees. For example, there was often plenty of lip service paid to the value of employees, but little concrete done on the ground to actually motivate them. They also found a host of unintentional behaviors which caused problems and included:
- Clearly, reward and recognition are always important motivators for employees, even if they are not placed on top of the list every time, and this study found that about half the workers felt they received little recognition or credit and two-thirds felt they were criticized more than praised.
- Another issue raised in the study – and this is again related to the ‘Making Progress’ finding above – is how some managers inadvertently make it difficult for employees to do their jobs by imposing too many procedures or hurdles to getting things done, creating an unwieldy bureaucracy, demanding too much paperwork and cross-checking, indulging in bad communication etc., which lead to blockages and employee frustrations.
I think these points about the mis-match are worth reflecting upon and you should examine what problems of that nature might be in your business or department at present. As to what can be done to better motivate your employees, well, I think that the twelve factors which I have written about before are again entirely relevant here:
1- Effective leadership applied at all levels is certainly the most critical first step in motivating your people.
2- Culture – whilst there is no ‘right’ culture, there are certain environments which build motivation and others which do the opposite.
3- Composition – there must be a general ‘fit’ between all your team members; otherwise it is hard to motivate them, because who wants to work alongside a bunch of people with whom you have little or nothing in common?
4- Clarity – in this context means ensuring that employees understand what is expected of them, but also that they understand how they can contribute to the achievement of goals.
5- Competence – contributes to raising motivation levels in a number of ways. First, most employees want to build their skills and talents at work so you need to ensure that there are relevant and regular opportunities for personal development. Equally, all employees should be similarly competent at what they are expected to do. If not, others in the team have to take up the slack and this creates resentment.
6- Cooperation – when people work well together they build bonds and trust increases and this in turn improves general motivation levels because most people prefer to work in collaborative environments.
7- Control – controlling how individuals behave within teams is critical to motivation, because when certain team members are allowed to step out of line without consequence, this serves as a de-motivating factor for others. Equally, general levels of control need to be reduced over time so that employees have autonomy and feel empowered.
8- Communication – is always key to the levels of motivation seen and where communication is regular, open, two-way and more importantly effective, employees tend to be more motivated.
9- Challenge – for most employees having a sense of challenge in their work is vital to how motivated they feel.
10- Conflict – the manner in which conflict is managed can have a major impact on how engaged employees are likely to be. Destructive conflict, which adds no value should be dealt with promptly; a failure to do so will impact motivation levels as most people hate to work in a poisoned atmosphere.
11- Compensation – in the broadest sense is about people feeling rewarded for the contribution they make. Pay and conditions are of course an important element in this, but things like constructive feedback and positive recognition when deserved are just as powerful.
12- Change – how change is managed can also impact on the levels of motivation seen. Too little change can result in stagnation which destroys motivation, yet too much of it, or too much meaningless change can simply frustrate employees and causes them to disengage.
Hopefully, as a result of this article, you will have some food for thought to help you examine the issue of employee motivation in your department or business. Ultimately the outcome you want is that ‘what you do’ in terms of motivation matches ‘what your employees expect’, so that anyone comparing the two lists wouldn’t think that the managers and employees in your business came from different planets.