Do you really think that you motivate your people?


Part 1

Ioannis C. Papaconstantinou*

We have to admit it. One of the most dreadful managerial tasks is employees’ motivation!!! “Yes”, now you say “it is, but not for me”. I couldn’t agree more with you. But, suppose that you were asked from a friend that recently undertook a managerial position “How should I go about motivating my people?”. You will be tempted to give a relatively simple and straightforward answer such as: “Pay them well, say thank you or tap them in the back, give some bonus, if possible, and you are all set”. I am sure you know this is not true. But, if it is not true, and you know that there are so many parameters and things to consider when you approach your employees’ motivation, why don’t you take them into consideration? You are very busy with other things? You think it is very complex and energy absorbing? You don’t really have the time? It requires lots of interpersonal contact and this is difficult? I bet that all these excuses are valid. However, have you really wandered how much better you would perform if your people were fully energized and engaged to what they do? Ultimately, as a manager, what is your major objective? To deliver results. If you believe in the fallacy that you can deliver as a “one band man” then you are definitely not suited for a managerial position.

Long lasting business success stories are based on companies and leaders that invested heavily in people. General Electric, for example, under the reigns of both Jack Welch and Jeff Immelt, has pursued talent spotting and nurturing religiously. This investment requires a complex consideration of the multiple facets of work and the job being done as well as of the context within which it is delivered. Employee motivation has been a “hot” topic ever since its’ appearance in the early years of the 20th century and has gone through lots of developments till the late 1970’s when we thought we know everything on the topic. However, the dawn of the 21st century has shed new light on the topic with new theories from top scholars from Harvard Business School (P. Lawrence, N. Nohria, B. Groysberg) or by considerably enriching older theories like Adam Grant (The Wharton School), Sharon Parker (University of Sheffield) and others did with the Job Characteristics Theory. These new approaches identify some innovative aspects on the field that attempt to capture both intrinsic (coming internally from the employee) and extrinsic (external practices that energize employees) motivation. Furthermore, they take into consideration the notion of increasing job complexity which derives from the most turbulent business environment we have ever faced. Really, how often do we pay attention on what our people are doing daily and, even more important, how they feel about what they are doing. One would say “why bother? My employees have to do what they are told to do or what their job description defines.” And this makes them happy? “Well they are happy as long as they get paid on time”. Well, yes they will not really complain if they are getting paid (they are in the level of no dissatisfaction) but truly, wouldn’t you be more comfortable if your employees were not just delivering what they were told to do but in addition “make the extra mile” that will bring more value to your company? Let’s put it in simple words. What would you prefer? An employee’s attitude towards work which is pictured in the following phrase: “I do my work because I’ll get rewarded with money or other tangible rewards”? Or one that would say: “I do my work because it is meaningful to me and of my best interest”? We all know the answer.

Nohria (2008) presented a new model on employee motivation which espouses that humans have four (4) deeply innate drives that energize their behaviors (Acquire, Bond, Comprehend and Defend). They argue that those drives are inherited from very old times and that they apply in all cultures and societies. One of the drives is the drive to Comprehend (also quoted as the drive to be Challenged and Learn). This drive is described as follows: “We want very much to make sense of the world around us, to produce theories and accounts that make events comprehensible and suggest reasonable actions and responses. We are frustrated when things seem senseless. In the workplace, the drive to comprehend accounts for the desire to make a meaningful contribution. Employees are motivated by jobs that challenge them and enable them to grow and learn, and they are demoralized by those that seem to be monotonous and lead to a dead end. Talented employees who feel trapped often leave their companies to find new challenges elsewhere.” This last phrase can be demonstrated by a recent sports example: Probably you know Radamel Falcao, one of the top football players in the world. Falcao joined the French football club A.S. Monaco in June 2013 with a very high annual salary contract (not taxed in Monaco) and with a team with a very ambitious project. One year after, and with the objectives of the team met, Falcao asked to leave Monaco. The reasons behind this decision? He wanted a new challenge. The owner of AS Monaco deflated next year’s objectives for the team and allowed some key players to leave (including Falcao’s best friend James Rodriguez that hurt the drive to Bond). Falcao felt that staying with the team doesn’t make sense anymore since the team did not satisfy his drive to be challenged. So what happens with our employees and their drive to Comprehend?

Nohria et al. (2008) argue that the drive to comprehend is best addressed by designing jobs that are meaningful, interesting and challenging, that have distinct and important role in the organization and that foster a sense of contribution to the organization. Sounds great, doesn’t it? However, consider how can you make the work of a call center employee, who is continuously monitored, to entail all these characteristics? Work design is one of the major approaches to employee motivation. Recent research has enriched this approach with multiple factors that affect the motivational and subsequently the performance levels of employees. The limits of the article would not allow for an extensive and deep analysis. Nevertheless, we will highlight the major issues that can yield important results for our companies. Some of the issues are not applicable in all positions and companies. Nevertheless, an improvement in some of them can make a big difference. Before we start, I need to stress that we, as managers, need to know the people we manage one by one, their skills, knowledge, aspirations even personal issues (not intimate). This will get them out of anonymity and make them feel that the “boss” cares, and this is a prerequisite for effective work design.

First we examine the task characteristics which are primarily concerned with the way the work itself is carried out and the extent and kind of tasks associated with a particular job.

The degree to which a job requires employees to perform a wide range of tasks on the job is called Task Variety. Think about it: what else could the receptionist in your organization do apart from welcoming and possibly showing your business visitors to the office they want to get? Are there lag times that could be exploited for the benefit of the employee and the organization? This type of questions should be posed for any position. Research has shown that positions that comprise the execution of different work activities are most likely to be appealing and pleasant to perform. By the way, the receptionist (or the security guard) is the first face that someone sees when he/she visits your company. Would you be happy to be welcomed by a bored and demotivated person?

The degree to which a job influences the lives or work of others, whether inside or outside the organization is called Task Significance. Humans want to be needed and be reminded of that frequently. If they perceive that their work is irrelevant and meaningless to others they just “pass away” emotionally. Rolls Royce Engines runs regular events it calls “Voice of the Customer” when customer teams visit Rolls-Royce and spend time with various parts of the business, including maintenance and engineering, to share their experiences with the Rolls-Royce teams and vice versa and emphasize to employees that they are very important for the safety of airplane passengers. Doesn’t this increase the feeling of responsibility and pride in what they do? Of course not all companies can bring their customers to discuss with its employees neither all positions have interactions outside the organization. Well, then, find “internal customers”. Other people or departments that your employees work affect them and is important for them too. This must be a policy for your company to make more noticeable to individuals, departments, units of the significance that employees’ work has on each other. Sounds difficult? O.k. then YOU should become their internal customer!!! These people are working with you, right? How often do you make them understand that their work has a meaningful impact on you? Many managers consider that by uttering a single “Thank you” they are passing the message over. Or, even worse, when they say to an employee “you did a great job” they still believe that they have passed the message. Instead, consider this feedback: “The report you prepared for the executive board was marvelous. They all expressed their enthusiasm and asked me to tell you that you did a nice job. And I want to accentuate to you that you have made me, and the whole department, stand out in the eyes of the CEO. Thank you.” Needless to say how your subordinate will feel and what he/she will do for you in the future. The American poet Maya Angelou wrote once: “People, will forget what you said, will forget what you did but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

To be continued…

Ioannis Papaconstantinou is the founder and CEO of New Mind Executives, an executive training and consulting firm, and he is the Unit Leader of the Unit “Organizational Behavior” at the Executive MBA of the University of Sheffield International Faculty in Thessaloniki.

Leave a Reply