Can You Motivate Employees?

Motivation peopleAccording to a Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) white paper, “pay might not matter as much as you think in turnover decisions, as compensation and pay satisfaction are relatively weak predictors of employees’ decisions to leave. Thus, offering pay increases or bonuses to keep people at your organization may not be the most efficient way to address retention.”

This reinforces what most HR professionals have long known – that employee satisfaction and motivation are tied to various factors. The theory of organizational equilibrium, for example, states that employees will stay with an organization as long as the inducements, including good pay, working conditions, and developmental opportunities, are equal to (or greater than) the employee’s contributions of time and effort. In other words, people stay with an organization as long as they feel they’re getting as much (or more) from the company as they give.

A client once asked me to address the question of how to motivate employees at his annual meeting. While introducing me, the CEO was kind enough to pay me some compliments and build credibility for me with the audience. When I took the microphone, I thanked him for his generous remarks, and repeated the fact that I’d been asked to address the question of how to motivate employees. To everyone’s dismay, I said, “You can’t.” I thanked them for inviting me and started walking offstage. Just as I was getting beyond view, while hearing a buzz of uncomfortable chatter throughout the hotel ballroom, I returned to the podium and said, “But if you’d like to know how you can get employees to motivate themselves, I have a few ideas I’d like to share.”

I don’t normally pull stunts like that, but it made a fundamental point: You cannot motivate anyone else. Motivation is an internal choice that people must make for themselves. No matter how badly you want someone to be motivated and achieve a particular outcome; they must personally want to achieve the outcome for it to occur.

In his bestselling book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Daniel H. Pink identifies three core Business mechanismelements of motivation:

  • Autonomy.  People need to sense the value of their individuality. They want to own their achievements. They want to self-direct the pursuit of their most important goals and dreams without continual interference.
  • Mastery.  People want to be good at what they do, and some want to be the very best. To achieve this goal, they must acquire awareness, skills, and knowledge. They must also be allowed to become the “masters and commanders” of their domains.
  • Purpose.  People crave purpose in almost everything they do. We all want to discover greater meaning in our lives, and we all strive to make a difference. If someone sees no purpose or value in what he does, his only aspiration will be to become “vice president in charge of collecting a paycheck.”

When employees are given opportunities to achieve autonomy, mastery, and purpose, they are highly motivated to become better at their jobs. When they’re allowed to claim ownership for their success, they’re more willing to be accountable when they are less than successful. Ultimately, the emotional rewards of work are what keep people happy and what motivates them to persevere against even daunting odds. When employees’ sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose is absent, most will succumb to futility.

What are the costs and impact of futility? It depends on the organization, but clients that have adopted our Team Development Strategy and Team Covenant have reduced their annual turnover rates from as much as 23 percent to 3 percent and maintained these results for as long as fourteen consecutive years… and counting. This represents millions of dollars (every year) in reduced operating costs, including the costs of recruitment and hiring, training, loss of performance, absenteeism, and much more.

Companies that find agreement with our Team Covenant have learned that our philosophy is simple and extremely profit-oriented. The process becomes a contract between the organization and each employee—one based on defined rules of respect for individuals and teams, coupled with clearly defined and measurable job performance expectations. All of this is negotiated in exchange for the genuine and consistent acceptance of measurable individual accountability from every manager and employee.