Originally published in Guardian Sustainable Business in 2011 when I was working for Futerra, this article forms the basis of my interest in motivation and the soft skills revolution. I’d recommend building an ‘Intrapreneur network’ rather than talking about ‘Champions’ these days, but it’s still a good read for people considering employee engagement issues. Enjoy!
Did you get up for work this morning, rub your sleepy eyes and tick off your mental checklist of things to do today. Did you hit ‘snooze’ a few times in an attempt to stave off the inevitable? Drag yourself out of bed and stand in the shower for too long, feeling slightly sick at the prospect of having to go to work? Is Ferris Bueller your favourite movie? Do you feel nostalgic for a spirit of freedom gradually being eroded by schedules, meaningless tasks and boredom?
OK, so I exaggerate slightly, but working in employee engagement does give me an interesting insight in the way that different companies operate. The idea of active, engaged, happy people. People working on their own projects in an environment that fosters autonomy and innovation seems a sensible vision. Yet studies indicate that a frighteningly low number of people are actively engaged at work, and many are actively disengaged. Why is it that so many get it wrong? Psychologists have been studying motivation for years. So why does business lag so woefully behind when it comes to putting it into practice?
This was brought home to me this week at a university reunion. An engagement, returns from overseas and career changes provided fodder for lively conversation. Not least, our working lives.
One of the key themes, discussed with worrying regularity was the recession, or rather, our first hand experience of it. Despite the wide range of professions (estate agent, to physiotherapist and everything in-between), the mood was dour and the stories depressingly similar. A focus on monetary cuts and redundancies, more work for fewer people, de-motivation and a feeling of being undervalued prevailed.
The strange thing about this focus on cash is that money is a ‘hygiene factor’. It is a great cause of dissatisfaction if you don’t have enough (particularly when it means we can’t satisfy our basic needs), but doesn’t lead to sustained high levels of satisfaction when present in decent amounts. Don’t believe me? Think about it, not having enough cash is a constant pain. Things must be rationed, excuses made when expensive invitations crop up and constant mental mathematics a pastime.
But on the flip side, an excess of cash does not bring about comparable levels of joy. There will be the initial rush (the joy of the first pay cheque), followed by joy as one discovers new things to spend money on (dinners out, shoes, holidays). However, after a while, these things become the norm. You don’t wake up every day exultant about your cash and quickly move on to other things.
The issue is that so much of the way that business seeks to ‘motivate’ people is through money. Strangely enough, the recession has helped, with McKinsey suggesting that 27% businesses explored non fiscal ways of motivating staff. However, as we move out of the recession, many companies are returning to motivating staff with bonuses, targets and competition. Motivation theory shows this can lead to unscrupulous behaviour, narrow mindedness and can crush creativity.
Motivation theory has advanced enormously in the last 10 years. Psychologists such as Edward Deci and Richard Flaste have detailed the factors that foster intrinsic motivation, whilst Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi details how we are happiest when in a state of ‘flow’. The problem is that we haven’t worked out to apply this knowledge to the real world on a mass scale yet. We still rely on cash, competition and targets to motivate. We forget that humans are not rational beings. Sweeter carrots or sharper sticks don’t always get us where we need to be.
The factors that need to be present to create the most intrinsically motivated people are the opportunity for autonomy, to achieve mastery and to align their work to a purpose. Google worked this out years ago. Their 20% time has spawned some of the most successful innovations in their company history (Gmail, Google maps etc). Mozilla Firefox, Wikipedia, Rep-Rap and others have all been spawned by ‘open sourcing’. A business model now being exploited by crowdsourcers that looks to revolutionise design. There are financial benefits too, those companies with employees registering a high level of engagement with their jobs had, on average, a 10% higher rate of productivity than those whose employees were actively disengaged.
Of the six people in the room, only two of us were able to say we loved our jobs. T, the former consultant was greatly enjoying the challenge of learning to be a teacher. Frustrated by increasingly long hours, lower pay and the abandonment of projects in late stages her intrinsic motivation and appetite for consultancy was quashed. Teaching allowed her a certain level of autonomy, provided a variety of new challenges and now she feels like she is benefiting the community in which she grew up. In fact, since the recession bit, the number of applicants for teaching jobs has soared. It is widely reported that job security was the defining factor, although with a similar trend in volunteering, one has to wonder whether the drivers are deeper. Fed up in working environments where gains are based on extrinsic motivators (which have been eroded during the recession), human beings search for something more meaningful, that challenges them and makes them feel good about what they are doing.
I also work for a company that recognises the value of fostering intrinsic motivation. Profit, impact and joy are Futerra’s KPIs. They not only provide a mental checklist, they also guide us as a company. It is perfectly acceptable for any member of the team to question whether a project, aspect of our working environment or kitchen mess contravene them, and act accordingly. It’s not perfect, but all are given equal weight.
So, how can we use motivation theory to make better businesses?
Here is my 5 point plan:
Consult your staff
Involvement in special projects help people feel like a part of the solution. If you have a problem, why not ask your staff to help you overcome it? Collective solutions increase the chance that your employees buy into what you are planning and help you create something that fits your brand and people.
Pay people enough
Pay people what they think they’re worth and you remove money from the equation. And never use bonuses to motivate people as a carrot. Use them as a ‘surprise’ after the event (‘now that you’ve done this…’).
Use praise, recognition and empowerment as motivators. They are more powerful motivators than money if your workforce is paid enough (see 2). Read ‘Drive’ by Dan Pink or ‘Predicatably Irrational’ by Dan Ariely if you don’t believe me.
Create a champions network
Create strong, high status networks of people. The power of social networks to create change has been well documented, so why is involvement with initiatives such as Champions often viewed with trepidation, seen as add on and low status? Word of mouth is most trusted form of communications and being labelled the ‘police’ won’t make your Champions the motivated change agents you need them to be. Underlining the importance of their work to middle management and recruiting the right people is key here.
Link your special projects to sustainability. In many sectors, sustainability can save money, become a differentiator and increase trust in your brand. You could achieve transformational change if you set challenges linked to sustainability and asked your employees to help you solve them. Sustainability encompasses the financial, environmental and social impacts of your business, making your company a better place to work.
I’ll be watching the comments page, so please do ask if you have any questions, or just drop us a line to let me know what you think. Challenge me.