How to Boost Employee Engagement and Motivation
To Motivate Employees, Tap Into Their Internal Drive
Keeping top talent is more important today than ever before. With workers resigning in droves as part of the fallout of the global COVID pandemic, organizations everywhere are feeling strapped.
In addition to raising salaries and offering signing bonuses and stock options, leaders are looking for even more ways to attract talent and boost employee motivation in today’s competitive labor market.
With many workers now accustomed to working from home, some organizations are building on-site wine bars, covering commuting costs, or providing free lunch to encourage employees to come back into the workplace.
It’s almost as if we’re in an “arms race” of ever-escalating company perks, and it’s not unheard of for businesses to go as far as paying for their employees’ weddings or offering a monthly “beauty budget” for manicures, pedicures, and haircuts.
And such extrinsic rewards are clearly motivating for many people.
Both Extrinsic and Intrinsic Rewards Can Attract Talent, Motivate Employees
But as important as compensation and benefits are for motivating employees, we know they’re not the only things that matter when it comes to keeping employees productive and engaged. These benefits are a part of a much larger motivation equation. Intrinsic rewards, such as psychological wellbeing, joy, learning, and personal fulfillment, matter too.
Many companies recognizing this are now embracing purposeful leadership, making an intentional effort to help employees connect their personal values to organizational priorities and understand their individual contributions in terms of the impact of the business on society at large.
Plus, in today’s era of employee activism, more workers are expecting their organizations to take a stance on hot-button social issues and are calling for greater organizational accountability on issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion and other causes they care about. Silence on a subject can be a powerful statement in and of itself, so organizations should be mindful of how that can affect employee motivation and loyalty as well.
Many companies are also looking to improve employee retention post-pandemic with flexible work arrangements, 4-day work weeks, or hybrid workplaces. Certainly, giving employees as much autonomy as possible in deciding when and where they work is helpful to increase employee motivation and engagement.
Yet many organizations still do not fully understand how best to motivate and engage employees.
What Really Drives Employee Engagement and Motivation?
First, understand the realities about employee engagement and motivation.
Lack of engagement isn’t about lack of motivation. The difference between an engaged and disengaged person is not a lack of motivation, but the quality of their motivation. The key to long-term engagement is the day-to-day shift to optimal motivation, when employees’ work is aligned (linked to a significant value), integrated (linked to an important purpose or issue), or inherent (naturally enjoyable, compelling, or interesting).
Relational engagement is as important as work engagement. A leader’s investment in work relationships is a critical and unique aspect of employee engagement. A leader is engaged in multiple relationships at work — with peers, employees, stakeholders, and customers. Relational engagement is the degree to which a leader is energized, enthusiastic, and absorbed in working with others.
Career development boosts engagement. Studies have repeatedly shown that organizations with high employee engagement and motivation, with high satisfaction and retention rates, demonstrated consistently different talent management practices than those with low engagement. Talent development processes were key differentiators.
Tap Internal Motivation to Unlock Productivity
So what are the other important factors to consider when motivating employees? And what can employers do to boost employee engagement and motivation?
A team of our researchers looked at these questions.
Building on an established theory that people have different types of motivation at work, they looked at how motives work together to influence job attitudes that are important for employees’ retention and performance. Our research has shown that managers who lack internal motivation are likely to have unfavorable job attitudes and may leave the organization.
Our research study examined over 300 U.S. managers from numerous organizations, working at the middle, upper-middle, and executive levels. It measured levels of external motivation along with 3 types of internal motivation which, in combination, resulted in 6 “managerial motivational profiles.” The research team found that managers who lack internal motivation are likely to have unfavorable job attitudes and may leave the organization.
In contrast, managers who were the most satisfied with their jobs and committed to their organizations were either:
- Internally driven: Their motivation came primarily from within; they were motivated by a desire to maintain their self-image, pursue their values and goals, and engage in enjoyable or interesting work.
- Self-directed: Their motivation was pursuing their values, goals, and interests. These managers did what was personally important or enjoyable to them, and they were less concerned about rewards or self-image.
In both cases, managers needed internal motivation to unlock productivity.
Researchers also found that externally driven motivation (powered by extrinsic rewards) wasn’t necessarily damaging, but needed to be paired with internally driven motivation for the greatest success at engaging and motivating employees. Being simultaneously internally and externally motivated is related to more positive outcomes than solely being externally driven.
That’s why in today’s competitive market, organizations can no longer afford to be uninspiring and soulless, even if they pay well.
High internal motivation is the key to unlocking employee engagement, satisfaction, commitment, and performance.
How to Boost Employee Engagement and Motivation
How to Improve Employee Engagement
If you’re serious about fighting disengagement and building increased commitment to your organization, here are some tips to help you improve employee engagement and motivate employees:
- Help employees understand their own motivations. People who are happiest and most energized and engaged are doing work that aligns with what motivates them. Our research has found that value alignment is particularly important for younger workers. So support your people in better understanding themselves, and where possible, managers and employees should work together to “sculpt” roles and fine-tune tasks so they’re more aligned with passion. Greater engagement will follow.
- Care about people. Employees’ engagement and intention to stay with their current company is dramatically higher for employees who strongly agree that their managers care about their wellbeing. High levels of emotional intelligence drive employee engagement and motivation, so ensure your managers lead empathetically and provide direct reports with sincere support. In contrast, the feeling of an absence of support makes employees want to leave.
- Give people more authority, not just more responsibility. This is especially true for your star performers. Our research on high-potential talent has found that high potentials don’t just want more responsibility in developmental assignments; what will increase their commitment and engagement to the organization is more decision-making authority in developmental assignments.
- Develop others. Having a manager who encourages an employee’s development is extremely important for employee motivation. This is not an HR job or something for your employee to figure out alone. Take time to mentor employees to excel in their current roles and guide them to pursue future interests. Managers must understand that they are key for employee development.
- Be authentic. Building relationships requires trust, and trust comes when no one feels they are “faking it” or “playing a role.” Organizations that foster authentic leadership are more likely to have engaged, enthusiastic employees. So bring your whole self to your job and create space for others to do the same, while acknowledging and honoring different lived experiences. Intentionally equipping your managers with inclusive leadership practices can be very important for increasing employee engagement among traditionally marginalized or underrepresented groups.
3 Ways to Boost Employee Motivation
If organizations want to develop and energize their employees, particularly their high potentials, they must recognize individual differences in managers’ motives. Optimizing employee motivation is not as simple as implementing a one-size-fits-all incentive system. To truly optimize motivation, organizations must understand and address the wide range of motives that managers have for tackling their jobs.
Our research suggests that organizations can create environments that foster internal employee motivation in 3 primary ways: bosses, reward systems, and organizational politics.
1. Expect bosses to provide support and encourage self-direction.
Managers’ immediate bosses play a critical role in facilitating their internal motivation, so HR teams should make clear what is expected of people leaders.
Individuals must believe that their bosses value their contributions and care about them as people. Employees who feel supported by their bosses have a sense of security and self-worth that allows them to draw on internal motivation. In contrast, when boss support is lacking, managers feel threatened and insecure and will draw on less internal motivation. So, ensure your managers are always helping to build greater psychological safety at work.
Bosses should also behave in ways that allow managers to use their inner resources, including holding coaching conversations to encourage problem-solving, rather than imposing solutions. They should listen to their employees’ ideas, understand their interests and preferences, and find ways to align opportunities, projects, and job assignments with work that their employees will find personally meaningful.
2. Create rewards systems that affirm.
Extrinsic rewards are a fundamental part of organizational life. Their impact depends on how the rewards are designed and administered.
Affirming rewards motivate employees by recognizing managers that fulfill important, challenging (but not impossible) goals. Common rewards such as pay increases, bonuses, stock options, promotions, and recognition are affirming if they’re tied to important goals and are not administered in an oppressive manner.
- Avoid offering rewards that create substantial pressure for employees to achieve specific outcomes, reducing their sense of self-direction and dominating their thoughts, feelings, and actions. For instance, a bonus system that puts large amounts of compensation at risk, or that pits managers against one another, fostering cutthroat competition among team members, is likely to feel oppressive.
- In contrast, being rewarded for achieving organizational goals boosts managers’ feelings of competence and task mastery. Managers’ sense of their own capabilities is enhanced, thereby increasing their internal motivation.
Provide access to development opportunities. Today, employees simply expect their organizations to provide them with opportunities for growth. Providing leadership programs, as well as coaching and mentoring, particularly for new leaders, can help managers build self-awareness, understand their own strengths and weaknesses, and grow as leaders.
And importantly, HR leaders should work to ensure that managers and supervisors know how to show boss support for development.
3. Minimize organizational politics and promote fairness.
In many organizations, the environment is highly politicized and managers feel that they must engage in political behavior (e.g., connecting to players with clout, manipulating others, stifling honest criticism, going along with others’ ideas and actions) to maintain or advance their own status.
While political skills are important for individuals to have, a highly political environment interferes with managers’ internal motivation, as they work to maintain their image and gain external approval, rather than acting from within.
Organizational systems and leaders should ensure that rewards and promotions are based on valid measures of qualifications and performance, rather than connections to powerful people, and that bosses are savvy enough not to be duped by shameless self-promotion.
A Closing Word on Motivating Employees
So by all means, to boost employee motivation, offer the compensation, benefits, and perks that they need, deserve, and expect. But also pay attention to bosses, fine-tune reward systems and opportunities for development, and limit organizational politics.
Doing this doesn’t eliminate the need for a solid compensation system — a solid compensation system remains a critical factor in employee engagement and motivation — but by focusing on these 3 levers as well, organizations can significantly increase employee buy-in and commitment.
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