The Secret Sauce to Motivate your Workforce

The Secret Sauce to Motivate your Workforce

In 2011, a group of economists from Stanford University in the USA conducted a study into how individual managers impact the productivity of teams. They accessed more than 5.5 million transactions from a data processing company to analyse how supervisors across more than 23,000 employees influenced group performance. Looking at the data they found that having a great boss (vs. a poor one) was equivalent to adding a whole extra person to a nine person team. The way that great bosses did this (say these economists) was by either teaching employees more efficient and productive ways of working, and/or by motivating them to be more focused. This simple but sophisticated study helped to distill something that management science has known for a long time: your performance as a leader is more about your ability to grow and motivate others, than your own technical prowess or productivity.

In the last five years we have asked around 5 million people from all over the world how motivated they are at work. Across this group, 18 percent tell us they do not find work a motivating place to be and for companies with bigger morale challenges, that number can be as high as 35 percent. What a shocking waste of energy, effort, and time. Imagine if your organisation was wasting between 18 percent and 35 percent of its resources in any other context, simply due to poor management. Something would be done, wouldn't it?

So what distinguishes motivated workers from others? Using our data, we identified a few consistent attributes of highly motivated workforces:

First, people work in highly collaborative teams that challenge the status quo and constantly strive to be better. Really high performing teams constantly stretch themselves to be better. They find ways to build continuous improvement into the rhythm of their work and they set themselves high (but achievable) goals. Stretch assignments and targets are not only useful to continuously raise the bar on performance, but they can also be highly motivating for people when they are designed and implemented in the right way.

Second, team leaders empower employees, give constructive feedback, and build strong relationships within their own team, and with the teams around them. Local leaders are critical for building positive day-to-day experiences for employees, and they should see it as part of their job. This doesn't only mean behaving in a way that promotes openness, trust, and respect, but also thinking about the way jobs are designed, how developmental tasks are assigned, and how involved people are in the decisions that impact their work. These leaders also need to consider how to bring the "outside in." That means connecting with other teams to help bring context to employees and to improve the speed of decision making when others are involved.

Third, senior leaders foster positive attitudes towards the future of the company. Our analysis tells us that the right local work environment is critical for motivating people. However, when we look at other aspects of the employee experience (e.g. wanting to stay with the company longer term, feeling a sense of accomplishment from work, and getting satisfaction from what one does) then other factors become important. In particular we have found that employees need to trust that the top leadership is competent and cares about people (even though they might rarely meet them in person). Employees also need to understand how their own future and the organisation's future coincide. This means opportunities to learn and grow with the company are significant. I often run into people who are willing to put up with tasks they don't enjoy or even frustrating situations at work because they feel they are learning.

Motivation at work is a challenging topic because our instinct tells us that it is influenced by different factors for different people. There's no doubt that individual personalities and characteristics have a big impact on what we find motivating and why. However we often over emphasise differences between individuals (particularly ourselves as compared to others) while underestimating broader needs common to everyone. So what can managers do? Here are some ideas:

  • Hire people who are passionate about your purpose. You can't change someone's personality, but you can make sure that you select people who are the best fit for you team. Think carefully about how you can use evidence based approaches to assessing what people want from their work and how they fit into your mission as a company.
  • Practice a strong management cadence. The goal is to build powerful management habits that can drive consistency and performance in the team. One practice that can be useful, especially for high growth organisations, is a regular future career planning conversation with employees. This seems counterintuitive at first because line leaders spend time talking to employees about options inside and outside the team they are working on. But the practice helps the line leader develop a deeper understanding of what motivates the individual person as well as exploring ways to keep talented and experienced people within the organisation with lateral moves. This improves retention and generates stronger cross functional teamwork.
  • Stop designing boring jobs. When designing your organisation and the work roles within it, consider the motivational value of the work to the people who will be doing it. This sounds obvious but it's something that many still overlook. One person working in a large company once told me that after a restructure, the new job she was given didn't even have a title; it was just the name of a process. Needless to say she wasn't that excited about it. Creating monotonous and dull work doesn't only stifle motivation; it limits learning, growth, and ultimately performance. Talented people don't stay in jobs that lack challenge and opportunities for mastery.

As with many things, there's no secret sauce to motivating people. It is about understanding the common needs of everyone while identifying the specifics that help individuals feel valued. I appreciate that's easier to write than it is to do, but then perhaps great leadership takes practice.

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