Want to Be a Better Manager? Stop Trying to Motivate Your Employees

Business people talking in meeting

Employee engagement is a top priority in many organizations. "How can we increase motivation levels?", "What can we do to get our workforce fully invested in their work and fully committed to the organization?". These are some of the most common questions we hear from our clients.

Based on our data, the answer may be a bit of a surprise to many leaders and managers. Each year we survey over a million employees around the globe. Our surveys span the entire employee lifecycle, capturing employee attitudes from their first day at work until their last. When we recently tracked a cohort of new hires over the course of their first year for one of our clients, here’s what we found.

In this organization, 9 out of 10 employees were motivated to go above and beyond after their first month on the job. But by the end of the first year, motivation levels had dropped to 75%, a notable 16% point decline. And these results are not rare; we see this pattern of decline in most of the organizations we survey. In some organizations, the erosion of engagement is even more pronounced.

At Mercer | Sirota, we think these findings should turn some management assumptions on their head.

Rather than trying to determine how to motivate employees, leaders and managers should figure out how to stop demotivating them.

When leaders and managers assume employees are hard to motivate, they focus on the wrong things. Instead of realizing that work is intrinsically motivating for many people, these misguided leaders and managers think that reward and punishment are the only ways to get people to work hard. They fall into the trap of Theory X thinking and overuse the carrot and the stick to get things done.

If you are a leader or a manager trying to get the most out of your direct reports, here are some questions to consider:

  1. When you look at your engagement data, what patterns do you find? Do engagement levels erode over time in your organization, or do they remain stable?
  2. Do you think your employees come to work self-motivated? Or do you feel the need to increase their motivation?
  3. How do you usually motivate your employees? Do you tend to use extrinsic rewards and punishment? Or do you focus on intrinsic motivators like recognition, empowerment, and autonomy?
  4. What aspects of the work environment may be demotivating your employees? What aspects of your personal leadership style may be demotivating your employees?

As you explore these questions, the main thing to reflect on is this: is your approach to employee engagement working? If not, you may be focusing on the wrong motivational levers.

Patrick Hyland, PhD
by Patrick Hyland, PhD

Research and Development, Mercer Employee Research

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