Companies need engaged employees. They are motivated to innovate, increase productivity, and satisfy customers. The sad truth, however, is that there are just not enough of them. Gallup surveys report that less than a third of American employees are engaged at work, and the percentage is even lower in other countries.
Why aren’t more workers engaged? Companies spend billions on management and leadership training that invariably includes motivation theories and advice about how to get people to care more about their jobs. The answer is simple: Most of the solutions out there are misleading or just plain wrong.
Most managerial theories of motivation fit into two buckets: hard and soft. Hard theories advise using carrots and sticks: money, promotion, threats. Soft theories include bosses who show empathy and giving workers more freedom.
Under hard motivation, if employees meet performance standards, they keep their jobs; if they do better, they are paid more and may be promoted. But money can also distort drive and even demotivate. Someone hoping for a bonus may try to please the boss by withholding negative information or constructive criticism. Workers competing for a limited pot of money are not likely to collaborate. And employees at companies where money is directly tied to production often find ways to game the system. Hard motivation that plays on greed and fear can get compliance but not engagement.
Would employees be more motivated by the application of a soft theory like a caring boss? What about giving them more autonomy and power in making decisions about how they work, when they work and who they work with?
Clearly, people prefer a caring manager, and many of them quit because of an autocratic or uncaring boss. But recent studies show that an empathetic manager doesn’t inspire employees to work any harder; they may be happier, but that doesn’t mean they’re more engaged. And autonomy can be quite motivating for self-starters, but not all employees are equipped to go off by themselves to innovate; nor does autonomy always encourage people to collaborate.
There is no one best way to motivate and engage people at work. Managers and leaders need to create a culture that integrates elements of hard and soft theories into what I call smart motivation, including five Rs: reasons, responsibilities, recognition, relationships, and rewards. All of the Rs can strengthen engagement, but their relative importance can vary for different personality types.
Here is a brief description of the five Rs and how different personality types prioritize them.
Which of the five Rs most motivates you? What do these Rs mean to you in your specific context? If you are leading a team, ask the members to rate the Rs, describe what they mean, and score how well they are being practiced in your organization. I’d be interested in the results.
Michael Maccoby is a globally recognized expert on leadership, who for 40 years has advised global leaders in businesses, governments, unions, universities, and non-profit organizations in 36 countries. He was director of the Program on Technology, Public Policy, and Human Development at the Kennedy School of Government. The article above is adapted from his book, Strategic Intelligence: Conceptual Tools for Leading Change.