The Shifting Sands of Employee Motivation

I recently attended a speech by best-selling author Daniel Pink in which he summarized research on shifts in employee motivators. The old “if-then motivators” of giving bonuses for the achievement of goals no longer work.  Work has become too complex and is changing too rapidly for such simple formulas to be relevant and to motivate performance.

The New Motivators

Pink described the motivators in today’s knowledge economy as being Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Autonomy is the ability to define one’s own work; the tasks, the required time, the best technique and the best team required.  Mastery means being afforded the time to make progress on improving one’s own work. Purpose entails knowing that the work being done has meaning or adds value in today’s world.

The Challenge

When these new motivators are in play, employees become “engaged”.  Active engagement entails commitment to the organization’s goals and values, motivation to contribute to the organization’s success and a sense that doing so enhances their own well-being.  In short, there is alignment between the goals of the employee and those of the organization.

Old incentives and management were focused on gaining compliance. New incentives and management must shift to increasing engagement if an organization is to remain competitive and retain talent in today’s world. The important and obvious question is: How?

The New Management

According to 10 years of Gallup Poll data, a full 80% of the workforce is at least somewhat engaged.  Leaders and supervisors now must focus on practices that 1) get employees to competence and Autonomy quickly, 2) aid employee efforts to achieve Mastery and 3) continuously instill a sense of Purpose in the work being done.

I propose that supervisors consider themselves “partners” that facilitate their employees achieving high performance, i.e. Mastery.  The acid test for any manager? If your employees do not improve their performance during a given period, then you have failed to add value to the organization during that period and are a cost without benefit.

The road to adding value to your employees is paved with regular, frequent and meaningful conversations about performance, problems, ideas for improvement, and how as a supervisor you can support achieving employee goals.  Feedback is critical both to development of Mastery and to instilling/maintaining a sense of Purpose in work.

These frequent interactions need to replace the annual evaluation that is based on a judgment rather than partnership paradigm.  In an age in which feedback is instant in almost all aspects of our life (e.g. ask a question of Google, instant answer; send a Tweet and the world responds), more frequent dialogue between supervisor and employee is essential.

I recommend that in each of these meetings, supervisors define steps they can take to help engaged employees achieve their goals.  Those steps might include:

  • Giving clearer direction re. needed outcomes, priorities, purpose of position
  • More clearly defining what good performance would look like in for a given responsibility
  • Providing more feedback on performance
  • Granting more authority or autonomy for decision-making, problem solving, altering methods employed
  • Making decisions needed by employees more rapidly
  • Assuring that employees have the resources needed to succeed
  • Giving more credit/appreciation for the results delivered, i.e. strengthening a sense of Purpose

Added to these seven steps to increase engagement should be a discussion of employee ideas of how to improve performance in their work area and how management can support those ideas.

Managers tell me that regularly addressing these topics can totally shift the organizational culture and the supervisor-employee relationship.  It shifts the emphasis from manager to facilitator, from judge to partner.  Such a shift is rewarding both for supervisor and employee and has huge potential for performance improvement.

How to Handle the Disengaged

What do you do about those (<20%) who are not engaged?  The “actively disengaged” have what is called a “Won’t Do” problem (i.e., they understand the assignment and have the skills, knowledge and authority to do it, they just won’t).  For such individuals, best practices would involve diagnosing the problem early and then employing aggressive progressive discipline and/or career counseling to try and turn it around or remove the problem.

There are some instances in which “Won’t Do” employees can be turned around.  Factors outside of work have de-motivated them about life, and a good supervisor can encourage success at work as a means to build toward success in life.  However, many “Won’t Do” problems are difficult to reverse.

More problematic is that “Won’t Do” problems are difficult to spot.  “Won’t Do” employees cite numerous factors, none of which can be substantiated, that are causing their sub-par performance, i.e. they seek to define the problem as “Can’t Do” (i.e., the employee is eager but does not have appropriate training, skills or authority to do the work).  They often appear busy, even joyful. But, they have a toxic impact on fellow workers. “Won’t Do” employees seek to give the supervisor responsibility for the problem. But, at the end of the day, data on their performance reveals the truth and that truth is that despite looking engaged, they are not producing real products.

A major motivator for writing my recent book, Creating High Performers, was to aid supervisors that find themselves wrapped around the axle by disengaged workers.  Such workers sow seeds of self-doubt in the supervisor and continuous thinking re. “What have I done wrong?” or “what could I have done or what can I do now to right the situation?”


Actively partner with your engaged employees through frequent conversations that search for ways to support employee goals of excelling in the organization.  For those that don’t respond, examine carefully their production, not effort, statistics, confront them regarding the failing partnership and hold them responsible to confront the source of “won’t do” problems.  In short, decrease the time you are spending spinning the wheels with “won’t do” problems and commit time to maximizing performance of those who are truly engaged.