In today’s hyper-competitive marketplace, understanding what fosters and forwards employee motivation—and, thus, organizational performance—is critical. Based on theories, studies, best practices, case studies and resources about motivation, this solutions-focused research article presents valuable information for the senior HR leader seeking competitive advantage. Introduction In today’s marketplace, where companies seek a competitive edge, motivation is key for talent retention and performance.
No matter the economic environment, the goal is to create a workplace that is engaging and motivating, where employees want to stay, grow and contribute their knowledge, experience and expertise. Motivation is generally defined as the psychological forces that determine the direction of a person’s level of effort, as well as a person’s persistence in the face of obstacles. The direction of a person’s behavior refers to the many possible actions that a person could engage in, while persistence refers to whether, when faced with roadblocks and obstacles, an individual keeps trying or gives up.
The responsibility for motivation is three-fold: it falls on the senior leadership, the direct manager and the employee. Numerous factors are involved, from trust, engagement and values (individual and organizational) to job satisfaction, achievement, acknowledgement and rewards. Motivation is essential for working autonomously, as well as for collaboration and effective teamwork. The ultimate focus of the organization is to successfully retain talent, meet goals and go beyond expectations.
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It is the role of HR and organizational leaders to foster an environment for excellence. Through a foundation of research, theory, studies and practical examples, this article addresses the questions of what motivates employees, what managers need to do, and what supports motivation and, thus, performance. What Influences Motivation? Motivating employees for better performance encompasses these critical factors: employee engagement, Organizational vision and values, management acknowledgment and appreciation of work well done, and overall authenticity of leadership.
Chana Anderson, CCP, SPHR-CA, director of HR and a member of the SHRM Employee Relations Special Expertise Panel, says that motivation is influenced equally by the employee and the company: “Motivation and engagement is truly a 50-50 relationship between the employee and employer. Employees are expected to come to the workplace with the intrinsic motivation and desire to be successful, be value-added and contribute to the obtainment of an employer’s vision. Conversely, it is incumbent upon the employer to provide resources, opportunities, recognition and a cohesive work environment for employees to be successful.
Engagement influences motivation. It is reflected in the extent to which employees commit, how hard they work and how long they stay. People join organizations for different reasons, motivated by intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Intrinsic rewards are reflected in actions believed to be important. Examples include an employee who wants to help people by providing excellent customer service or a senior manager who gains a sense of accomplishment from overseeing a large corporation. Intrinsic outcomes include responsibility, autonomy, feelings of accomplishment and the pleasure of doing interesting work.
Extrinsic-motivated behavior includes actions performed with the goal to have material or social rewards, with outcomes such as job security, benefits, vacation time and public recognition. It is the responsibility of managers to motivate employees, with the goal for employees to contribute to the organization. Managers can best motivate employees by offering rewards that are meaningful to them. Vision and Values Employees are often motivated differently. To develop a work environment that promotes motivation, organizations need to know what is important to their employees and then to emphasize these factors.
In fact, some companies and researchers are beginning to look at “work spirituality”—not in a religious sense, but in a sense that what an employee does aligns with his or her greater sense of life and purpose. Aside from monetary gain, work provides people with fulfillment on various levels, from earning a living and “doing good work” to aspiring to a vision and ultimately having an impact on the quality of life. These reasons can change over time in response to changes in people’s home life and responsibilities.
Further, in response to drastic economic changes and natural disasters, companies can change over time as well. Management Acknowledgment and Appreciation How employees are treated is a strong determinant of employee motivation and performance. Edward E. Lawler III, author and consultant for human resource management, emphasizes that “treating people right is fundamental to creating organizational effectiveness and success. It is also easier said than done. ” According to Lawler, this includes “a highly complex set of actions on the part of both organizations and employees.
Organizations must develop ways to treat their employees so that they are motivated and satisfied; employees must behave in ways to help their organizations become effective and high-performing. ” This winning combination for performance requires a partnership between the organization and the employees. Lawler states: “One can’t succeed without the other. To provide people with meaningful work and rewards, organizations need to be successful. And to be successful, organizations need high-performing individuals. The challenge is to design organizations that perform at high levels and treat people in ways that are rewarding and satisfying.
To describe this mutually beneficial relationship, Lawler uses the term virtuous spiral, a relationship that occurs when the organization values its employees, and in return, workers are committed to high performance. Leadership and Making a Difference In today’s pressure-cooker environment, performance is carefully noted at all levels of the organization. No matter an individual’s title, everyone has the opportunity to lead in some capacity and have a positive impact on performance. Understanding the value that can be achieved through different roles is one way of providing motivation, performance and thus leadership skills.
A recent article published on Knowledge@Wharton, titled “Putting a Face to a Name: The Art of Motivating Employees,” emphasizes that workers have better results when they can identify with those they serve. Specifically, face-to-face interactions and task significance (“what I do makes a difference”) are key drivers for motivation and performance. Research by Adam Grant, Ph. D. , a Wharton management professor, indicates that making human connections is critical for motivation, leadership and high job performance.
He found that face-to-face interactions—no matter how superficial—can lead to significant improvements in performance, and that motivation and performance increase simply by an employee’s awareness of the impact of his or her job on others. Dr. Grant has observed this result through studies of all types of jobs and roles in the workplace, from customer service representatives, managers, nurses, doctors and medical technicians to security guards, engineers, salespeople, police officers and fire fighters—based on when people can directly see the impact of their efforts. Mini Case Study In a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Dr. Grant found that lifeguards at a community recreation center who read about how their ability to avoid fatalities made a difference were stronger leaders/performers.
Their work improved by 40% in contrast to lifeguards who merely learned that lifeguarding can be personally enriching. Grant points out that in today’s economy, where work is often virtual without the end user physically present, “it is important for employers to build in systems that reinforce employees’ awareness of whom they are helping. As HR leaders work on processes and systems designed to improve motivation and performance, it is important to be cognizant of the issue of technology and how it can create distance between employees and the end users of their work. Dr. Grant suggests that focus on the mission of the organization is one way to overcome the challenge of a virtual workplace and lack of direct interaction and is a successful strategy for creating the energy for motivation necessary to achieve high performance and quality of service.
Leadership for Motivation
To reach the hearts and minds of employees, leaders need to be authentic with an impelling vision. It is exceedingly important for a leader of any organization to communicate his or her vision constantly to ensure that there is no doubt about the direction a team is heading,” says Ken Blanchard, world-renowned management coach. He emphasizes: “One of the most destructive traits a leader can have today is arrogance—acting like you’ve got it together all the time. On the other hand, one of the most endearing qualities a leader can have is to be in touch with his or her vulnerability. It’s that side of a leader that keeps the vision from crumbling under the pressure of circumstance. 7
In addition, leaders need to connect the organization’s vision and values to the employees’ day-to-day work and help them see how the work they do every day connects to the bigger picture. The 2009 study Best Companies for Leadership conducted by Bloomberg BusinessWeek. com and the Hay Group reveals that leading companies were focused on leadership even during the recent economic downtown. This annual study ranks the best companies for leadership and examines how they develop leaders. The 2009 study found a shift in what the top 20 leading organizations value regarding leadership.
Specifically, the most valued qualities in leaders are strategic thinking and inspiring leadership. In a press release, John Larrere, national director of Hay Group’s Leadership and Talent Practice, and co-leader of the Best Companies for Leadership Study, stated: “For organizations to succeed, they will need to understand what key leadership elements are paramount in driving their organizations toward growth. It’s more than just getting people to produce the right outcomes. It’s about getting them to be passionate about their work and grooming them to handle the challenges ahead.
The Best Companies for Leadership have figured this out. According to this study, companies are now focusing their efforts on positioning for the future. To do so, 94% of the best companies have leadership development programs to enable employees to deliver on goals/strategies, 90% provide all employees with the opportunity to develop and practice the capabilities needed to lead others, and 87% have a sufficient number of internal candidates ready to assume open leadership positions. In fact, 94% of the best companies actively manage a pool of successors for mission-critical roles, 83% invest a great deal in their people, and 80% promote growth opportunities.
In addition, 95% use corporate social responsibility to recruit employees, 66% have a high proportion of women in senior leadership, 91% make it easy for people to work from home, and 91% have an appreciation of global issues as a key job requirement. Finally, the best companies for leadership focus on employee engagement through commitment and discretionary effort and on employee enablement, with optimized roles and a supportive environment, leading to financial success, customer satisfaction and employee performance—all to drive organizational performance.
In today’s economy, leaders need to be mindful of economic pressures when looking for ways to motivate employees. Some organizations find cost-effective ways to provide opportunities through “developmental assignments,” where people can grow their skills in other areas to be ready for promotions when they may occur. A good manager will take the time to consider ways to motivate employees, whether performance levels are good or need improvement. For the leader, it is beneficial to take a step back and consider, on a personal level, what is motivating oneself.
Important questions to ask are:
- what are your own values;
- what keeps you motivated;
- how are your own engagement levels;
- are you committed to the values of your company;
- do you take pride in your work and in your organization? By taking the time to examine these questions and thoughtfully answer them, a leader can gain a refreshed and even enlightened viewpoint to perform better—both for him/herself and for his or her staff—and be able to better optimize for improvement.
By identifying three areas that need most attention, for example, a leader can develop a plan and put it into action. Employees need to have acknowledgment and respect and know that their contributions are valued. It cannot be stressed enough how demotivating it can be when managers do not recognize, acknowledge or appreciate employees and their hard work.
Positive and supportive leadership clearly makes the difference for an engaged and motivated workforce. In an interview with Hospitals and Health Networks, Jo Manion, R. N. , Ph. D. , points to the bottom line for hospital and patient care, as outlined in her book, The Engaged Workforce: Proven Strategies to Build a Positive Health Care Workforce. 12 Since excellent health care is critical for everyone at different points in life, employee motivation that results in excellent patient care is one example of motivation that all can relate to on personal and professional levels.
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