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Staff motivation: The startling truth about optimising workplace performance

Part 2/3 – How to avoid demotivating staff management practices

To understand this article in context, it will help to first read part 1/3 ‘Why most staff motivation strategies aren’t working’ 

Gabrielle Glasson

Gabrielle Glasson
Published 14 March 2017

Staff motivation - carrots and sticks don't work
Incentivising with carrots is actually de-motivating! Image by Clay Junell, Flickr

In part one of this post “Why most staff motivation strategies aren’t working”, I outlined two key disconnects in human motivation in the workplace.

1 – Although Australians define success as happiness, health and quality relationships, our career pursuits, behaviour and workplace cultures are in direct conflict with this, placing money and status as the highest pursuit.

2 – Businesses are not applying the modern science of human motivation to get the best out of their employees and are instead relying on outdated ‘carrot and stick’ management and incentivisation techniques. These are having the opposite effect of de-motivating staff and inhibiting creativity.

In this post, we demonstrate how a business that understands real human motivation will structure its culture around intrinsically motivating principles, rather than the extrinsic motivators of rewards and recognition.

These businesses provide employees with the satisfaction, drive and success they yearn in order to achieve the greatest results for themselves and their employers.

In his best-selling management book ‘Drive’, Daniel Pink elucidates that intrinsic motivation promotes greater physical and mental well-being. Such people have higher self-esteem, better interpersonal relationships and will perform more effectively for your business than those who are extrinsically motivated by incentives.

Despite this, most businesses rely almost entirely on extrinsic rewards to attempt to motivate staff.

  • Salary structure – bonuses, commission
  • Achievement Awards
  • Promotions
  • Gifts
  • Incentives
  • Lunches, parties, events
Motivating staff - carrots and sticks: the old paradigm

How to positively manage your workforce without demotivating staff

1. Understand that the personal success of your staff and the success of your business are not conflicting pursuits.

The impossible pursuit of ‘work-life’ balance is only impossible when businesses create a culture that defines success as taking away from one’s personal life to reach goals for the business. Such a business is not only doing a disservice to its staff, but to itself.

2. Compensate to retain talent

People work for a living, and if their compensation is inadequate their performance will be hindered by their perceived unfairness of their situation. Show your staff they are valued by paying them slightly above market rate and you will avoid salary becoming a point of distraction or resentment, costing you their full attention and commitment.

After this point, remuneration (extrinsic motivation) should move to the background and avoid interfering with intrinsic motivation as best as possible. This may cost a little more upfront, but the investment will be repaid many times over in productivity and improved retention.

3. Use rewards and recognition the right way

Equally, rewards and recognition can be an important part of providing staff with positive feedback to fuel motivation. To ensure you effectively motivate staff, praise and rewards should be non-routine, given unexpectedly after great work, and should focus on the strategy and effort rather than the outcome or result. Ensure that these do not become predictable and thus expected, and that you are not unintentionally encouraging the wrong type of behaviour or motivation in future.

4. Let go of controlling productivity measures that are not related to success

Hours worked, reports produced, calls made, leads generated. These measures all create a perceived sense of productivity – like you are getting your money’s worth out of your staff. It’s highly unlikely that any of these activities more than loosely correlate to the long-term success of your business though. They fill the day and create a reason to be present from 8:30-5:30 at the cost of motivation and real results.

This sense of control and measurability is the very thing holding your business back, but it is a very difficult thing for leaders to give up. Such change must come from the top-down.

Providing intrinsic motivation requires relinquishing control and trusting employees’ innate desire to self-motivate.

5. Promote staff based on results and their capacity to thrive at the next level, not based on ‘presenteeism’, tenure, or next-in-line measures.

Working the longest hours, having 10 years in the job and / or being a technical genius does not provide one with the resources to be a successful and effective manager of people, yet too often these are the criteria that result in promotions. Promoting staff on these kinds of criteria sets your business up for significant staff motivation and retention issues. A fully effective workforce MUST be able to connect well and trust their manager. Likewise, a good manager must have the social skills to empathise, mentor and motivate a team.

As the saying goes, people join a company, but leave a manager.

Motivating workspace
Google's Umbono workspace designed by Haldane Martin

How to create a workplace that fosters genuine staff motivation

Understand how human motivation really works

Unsurprisingly, employee motivation operates on the same principles as all human motivation. Pink outlines the science, showing us that there are three essential elements:

  1. Autonomythe desire to direct our own lives
  2. Masterythe urge to get better and better at something that matters
  3. Purposethe yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves

Over and over, case studies demonstrate the truth of this theory, yet businesses cling to the old paradigm of management. Management that thwarts autonomy through supervision and regulations, compromises the pursuit of mastery through distracting incentives and awards, and fails to provide a meaningful purpose by focusing on measurable, but often irrelevant KPIs rather than genuine results.

The change you need to genuinely harness the potential of your staff and take your business to the next level is relatively straight forward, but requires a significant shift in thinking.

The next and final part in this series provides practical guidance on how to create a workplace environment based on autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Read part 3/3: How to supercharge staff motivation

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