Wonder why sales growth is lagging?  Got the sense your innovators are stuck in neutral?  Is your customer service team downright cranky?  There are two ways to tackle these problems and the method you choose will determine your effectiveness and success.

Fix your Employees

Open your management textbooks, consult the wisdom of the internet (current site excepted, of course) and get busy motivating your team.  “Fixing employees” is relatively cheap (at first) and requires no imagination or dedication to your team.  It works but isn’t sustainable because the method:

  1. Requires constant carrot or stick reinforcement. Your success (if indeed you can call it such) will be short-term and uninspired.
  2. Treats people as one-dimensional and equates their motivations to simple stimulus-response behaviors like those in Pavlov’s famous experiments.
  3. Makes implicit assumptions that employees are broken.  (i.e. They must be broken, otherwise they would be motivated!)
  4. Places short-term benefits (you get what you want) ahead of long-term (engaged employees).

Fix the System

Instead of fixing a roster of “broken” employees, it is more likely that you have the right people in the wrong roles (right people, wrong seats).  Fixing the system requires a lot of effort and management skill.  However, after investing the time to ensure employees are aligned in the right seats, motivation springs forth from the natural curiosity and desires of your employees.

  1. Employee Choice – Edward Deci and Richard Ryan began ground-breaking work in the field they call SDT (Self-Determination Theory).  In a nutshell, and quoting from their landing page, “When self-determined, people experience a sense of freedom to do what is interesting, personally important, and vitalizing.”  Daniel Pink’s popular book Drive, starts with a nod to Deci and Ryan’s pivotal findings.
  2. Motivating employees is not as effective as finding ways they can contribute that relies on their intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation.  If this approach still seems too touchy-feely, read Frederick Herzberg’s 1987 HBR article.  I guarantee his thought-provoking (and entertaining) article will change your view of job satisfaction versus dissatisfaction and the foundational elements that lead to engagement.
  3. Employee engagement is most effective when it is a matchmaking processThink of the value you create when you match their skills/interests to work they find fulfilling, work that brings them a sense of achievement and opportunities for advancement.

Successfully Navigate the Matchmaking Process

  1. Observe – In what situations have you seen your employee get most excited?  What ideas are they willing to defend in public forums?  Why?
  2. Consider the organization – What part of the company needs this person’s particular spark?
  3. Discuss – Have a discussion with the employee (who else?) about their passion.  What would they do if they won the lottery and never had to work again?  Why?  What aspects make “it” worth doing?
  4. Make the change – Presumably the hiring decision was made because the person had talent.  Doesn’t it make sense to use that talent where it is used fully without the prodding of carrots and sticks?
  5. Test the alignment – Like all changes, it is worthwhile to monitor effectiveness.
  6. Repeat – Follow the sage advice of the shampoo bottle… repeat until the system works.

The pivot point is that we can’t motivate people BUT they can motivate themselves.  When we acknowledge this reality, we shift from trying to motivate people to seeking ways to tap into factors that motivate people intrinsically.  Trying to improve engagement through carrot/stick approaches just doesn’t work.  And why should it?  Human motivation is as unique as human beings.  We all march to our own drummer.  When managers use extrinsic motivators they fall into a trap that accepts a misconception that people are the same.

Who (or What) Really Motivates Employees?
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