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Keys to higher employee motivation: removing the engagement barriers

As we work across industries with different HR professionals, one important observation emerges: employee motivation still ranks among the top 3 HR challenges, regardless of the industry. After decades of motivation research, both in lab and real-life contexts, organizations seem to still struggle to set up environments that drive employee engagement.

Why is this and what you can do to change that?

  1. Understanding unique barriers to engagement

Each organizational context is unique - what works in one company will not necessarily work in another. What drives Googlers in Mountain View, California may have nothing to do with what drives developers in downtown Belgrade, Serbia. Also, while I love the insights obtained by motivational researchers (fabulous Dan Ariely and others), these are general drivers that need to be further nuanced in order to be operable in specific teams or organizational contexts.

Usually, barriers to engagement arise from different, often conflicting or contradictory pressures on employees. For example, while senior leadership preaches the importance of trust, middle management features a “wall of shame” in workplace cafeteria where this month’s product failures are pinned. Or an example where recruiters who ostensibly “own” the hiring process, only to be sabotaged by hiring managers who curry favors with employees by hiring only high-payout (but low quality) referrals. Or a product team that’s challenged to constantly innovate, but find their suggestions under 2 inches of dust because the decision-makers up the chain are too overloaded to act on them.

Some of the most interesting barriers to engagement come from the built environments – the most recent craze in open-space work has led to more motivation and engagement issues than any other large scale trend that spread in the business world: meant to increase collaboration and visibility, exclusively open space workplaces have resulted in massive employee distraction and disengagement.

People naturally want to be engaged - they engage in different techniques to ensure that their work remains meaningful and personally fulfilling (think job crafting for example). To identify engagement barriers, HR must understand their employees, their perspectives and daily lived experiences. In order to gain an understanding of these, you may try different research techniques:

Focus groups

Focus groups are perfect for understanding employee perspectives, and how everyday workplace life looks like from their vantage point. You would be surprised what people will share with you, only if you honestly ask. Sometimes, all it takes is a few well-targeted changes to dramatically change the motivational climate in the organization.

In one of our case studies, focus groups revealed that one of the biggest motivational issues among employees was constant boosting of rivalry among teams – and consequently, feelings of injustice when other teams “won” in a given quarter, since it carried an implication that the other teams "lost", despite the deeply interrelated nature of their work. Based on this finding, senior management implemented ‘shared’ rewards and put more focus on building a collegial, collaborative rather than competitive atmosphere and employee engagement shot up.

In-depth individual interviews

Sometimes, in high stakes situations, employees may not feel entirely comfortable sharing in a group setting. Individual interviews – which may be as short as 15 minutes – can reveal organizational issues by highlighting consistencies in employee experiences. Often, they are called “stay interviews”, designed to elicit reasons why employees stay in their jobs – as opposed to “exit interviews” when it’s too late to react to any engagement or motivation challenge.

In another case study, individual interviews revealed problems with team manager’s behaviors (which in turn was driven by him being promoted too quickly, lacked training and honest interest in managing). No one knew that he did not feel comfortable becoming a manager, because no one asked. And he didn’t say, because that would mean rejecting a promotion (and higher pay). Introducing ‘new manager’ training or creating a lateral promotion program can do wonders for employee motivation (and productivity).

While qualitative insights like this may be time-consuming and usually require some prior research experience, motivational issues in the organization cannot be diagnosed by annual employee engagement surveys. Engagement surveys are good for signaling problems and providing quick status checks on a large number of employees, but they cannot give us the “why” behind the “what”.

2. Acting on engagement barriers

Many organizational barriers, when correctly identified, are systemic in nature. What does this mean? Engagement barriers often involve multiple actors and multiple practices that have, more often than not, been carried on for a relatively long time. In other words, they are super difficult to change.

This is why many engagement projects fail – many moving pieces have to simultaneously (and hopefully voluntarily) change, transforming various long-held practices along the way. In our experience, the one change management strategy that never works is exercising top down command (think corporate values top-down events!). Some key components of successful workplace changes:

a. Employee involvement and co-participation

People like to be asked, and armed with a reason and an incentive to achieve certain goals, your people are the best source for designing – and following - change processes.

b. Focus less on telling and more on providing “affordances” (resources or supports the environment offers employees).

For instance, if you’d like people to informally interact more, you don’t need to tell them to do so. Simply provide a bunch of tables and chairs near a coffee machine. Or provide an internal, digital communication plaform. If you’d like employees to exercise more, provide opportunities and social incentives for people to join. If you’d like to boost trust, work to embed people in tight-knit social networks.

c. Engage the highest stakeholders in a continuous two-way dialogue

Company’s CEO, CHRO or other members of the C-suite have to spearhead the engagement initiatives. Not only do they need to listen, but also to be the decision-makers that stand behind new initiatives and programs.

In our recent case, the biggest obstacle to change was the small business owner who could not change her ways of treating employees in a "control and command" kind of way. The biggest transformation of the business actually was resting on her ability to transform her own ways of behaving. By becoming aware of the impact her communication style had on her employees (by reading focus group excerpts), she embarked on an individual coaching program and made strides in both her personal and professsional life.

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