Tools For Leaders

Understanding the Mystery of

The Vital Key To Employee Motivation

I so often encounter well-intended, sincere, hard-working managers who are frustrated and weary dealing with employees who are “unmotivated,” and I am completely sympathetic to their angst. While it’s certainly a monumental topic, nevertheless, there are some specific steps leaders can take to make real progress. We’ll explore one critical piece in this post, and then return another day to continue the discussion with additional ingredients (like money).

As we pursue greater understanding of the murky arena of motivating employees, it’s important to remember that there is no “magic bullet.” There’s no secret payplan, or combination of perks and benefits that will  allow you to put things on autopilot. There is no autopilot. It’s tempting to read about the Googles of the world, with their flexible schedules, bring-your-dog-to-work culture, endless arrays of food, ping pong tables for all, etc., etc., and think “That’s the answer! Dogs! Food! Ping pong!” Anyone who tells you there’s a simple answer, payplan, software, or smartphone app that will solve your employee motivation challenges is simply not telling you the truth.

The (uncomfortable) truth, as so insight-fully put by Dr. Albert Bandura, is this:

"Trying to bring a simple solution to a complex, persistent problem rarely works. Rather, it requires a combination of strategies…”

And the prerequisite step to addressing the issue of motivation with employees, as articulated by management guru Peter Drucker, is even more uncomfortable:

“At the very least, we should stop demotivating them.”

So what do we do? Where do we start? I’ll share one piece in the puzzle with you that you have undoubtedly encountered before, but perhaps without realizing the extraordinary significance of it. In all likelihood that’s because it may seem too simple and obvious, or because managers often think they do it already, or because they think their employees should do it themselves. Here’s the concept that profoundly influences workplace behavior:

“Energy Comes From Purpose.”

I understand it seems that employee motivation can’t possibly be that easy – and of course it isn’t; there are many more factors. But this one is absolutely crucial because from a behavioral perspective, people who have a clear and compelling sense of purpose are simply more energized – or you could say motivated – than people who don’t. Period. People have a deep need to believe that what they do has meaning and value beyond a paycheck. Repeated studies on employe behavior confirm that having a sense of meaningfulness in their work is one of the things employees care about most in a job. Employees who believe their work has genuine meaning and value will simply be more productive – regardless of how sophisticated or not the work itself may be.  And for better or worse, it’s the job of the boss to provide that sense of meaning and value. It’s one of the most important things a leader can do, to a large degree because of the unsettling corollary to the principle, which is this: You’ll never get a sustainable sense of urgency out of someone who doesn’t have a sense of purpose.

The Ritz Carlton Hotel chain recognizes this power of purpose, and consistently communicates to staff-members “As soon as one of us says, ‘Gee, maybe what I do here isn’t really important,’ then we all lose, because the customer can feel that.” The issue is absolutely not the prestige of a given job in the hierarchy of social or corporate structure, the issue is the leader’s willingness and ability to credibly and convincingly impart to their employees that the work they do matters. It matters.

Dr. Viktor Frankl’s classic work “Man’s Search for Meaning” includes this powerful truth:

“Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life, and the existential vacuum experienced in its absence leads to profound stagnation…”

If you supervise the work of other people, the implications of Frankl’s comment ae staggering relative to performance and productivity – because an employee will derive his or her sense of purpose (or lack thereof) primarily from the actions, behaviors, inferences, comments and conversation of their boss. And while certainly a case could be made that employees should bring their own sense of purpose to the job, the reality is that it rarely happens.

So how do we do that? First, the boss must do a little introspection to explore what he or she really thinks about the work a given employee does. Do you believe their work is meaningful to the organization? If you have mixed feelings about the significance of an employee’s role, you’ll never be able to credibly communicate meaningfulness to the employee. If you do believe it, however, you need to be able to articulate why you believe that in an authentic way. (Employees can smell a disingenuous message a mile away.)

In order for the leader to convincingly provide a compelling sense of purpose to an employee, the message must be these things:

Credible and believable.
Specific and clear.
Relevant and meaningful.
Ongoing and consistent.

The employee must be able to clearly see a connection between the work that they do and the meaningfulness that it has. Certainly, some of the least-prestigious and lowest-paying positions in many businesses have the greatest impact on customers’ perceptions about the business, and by virtue of that, on the business’ profitability. Yet sadly, many business invest very little emotional energy in imparting a compelling sense of purpose for the people in those positions.

If you’re not certain what that sense of purpose may be, I have kind of a “Swiss Army Knife” all-purpose sense-of-purpose for employees in almost any business. There’s some pretty potent research indicating that in about 68% of the cases where a customer stops doing business with a given company, the reason is because they have somehow gotten the impression that the company simply doesn’t care about having their business. So if you wanted to give almost anyone in your organization a clear sense of purpose, it could easily and simply start by asking “How does the work of this position demonstrate to our customers that we care?”

Give some thought to how you can impart a sense of meaningfulness to your people and they will simply be more energized – “energy comes from purpose.” As a boss, you have the privilege and power to change lives in a meaningful way by providing a compelling sense of purpose – how’s that for a sense of purpose for you?