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How the best motivate workers

By Clinton O. Longenecker

Executive Summary
Employee motivation has become more critical in an economic climate that forces businesses to do more with less. The best leaders know their employees, develop their skills, use meaningful incentives and deal effectively with low performers. Just as importantly, good leaders don’t use management tools to manipulate employees into better performance; instead, they get workers to buy into the success of the organization or process.

“When managers work to motivate their work force to create a sense of ownership and accountability for desired outcomes, the job of getting better results gets easier.”
- A manager’s observation

The current economic climate worldwide and in the U.S. has put tremendous pressure on organizations to increase efficiency regardless of industry or market. Managers are under increasing pressure to do more with less, requiring them to find better ways of doing business and motivating their work forces to achieve higher levels of performance. In most books on leadership, motivation is defined as an inner drive to satisfy a need, and this simple explanation of motivation is one of the most powerful: People are willing to expend effort when it satisfies some need that is important to them. And since motivation is all about need-driven behavior, it is important for managers to understand how their actions and the culture of their organizations affect the ability of employees to satisfy their needs at work.

Many have argued that the current economic downturn has made employee motivation a more important issue since organizations in nearly every industry are seeking ways to become more competitive and, in some cases, just survive. To that end, I recently surveyed 211 U.S. managers on the issue of employee motivation. Listed below are the key findings that make a strong case for the importance of leaders taking a serious approach in efforts to motivate their employees better:

  • Seventy-nine percent of managers agreed with the statement that “motivating employees is one of the most important functions of my role as a leader.”
  • Ninety-four percent of managers stated that work force motivation was either important or critically important to the success of their operation.
  • Eighty-two percent of managers agreed with the statement that “leaders can have a significant impact on an employee’s level of motivation and engagement.”
  • Eighty-five percent of managers believed that an employee’s level of motivation can have a significant effect on an employee’s performance.
  • Sixty-seven percent of managers believed that it is getting more difficult to motivate employees effectively.
  • Seventy-six percent of managers believed that they must adjust their approach to motivating each individual employee.

While quotes and inspirational sayings abound on the topic of motivation, it is much easier for a manager to de-motivate people than to motivate them. And when managers are asked to motivate their people or “fire them up,” they can appear manipulative and even shallow because they are not thinking about the bigger picture of performance in the context of leading their people. Even proven motivational techniques break down when they are viewed as manipulative tools rather than part of a larger set of important and authentic leadership practices and actions. Motivating people is, in essence, the cornerstone of effective leadership. Needless to say, we all have room for improvement.

Results-oriented managers share their techniques

For the past decade, we have been studying high performance business leaders from around the globe, benchmarking and analyzing their leadership practices to learn the very things that they do to increase performance and get better results. One of the most important issues in this analysis is how these business leaders approach the practice of motivating their work forces to achieve higher levels of performance and to deal with the issues mentioned in our survey above.

One of the greatest lessons that emerged from the interview portion of this research dealt with how results-oriented managers view motivation. Motivation is not simply a means to get people to pursue organizational goals; rather, it is a means to get people to buy in and take ownership of the organization’s needs as well as their own. Managers shared a variety of specific practices in this regard. For any work unit to get desired results, it is imperative that the leader attempt to create an environment in which employees have a sense of ownership of the activity and output of the group. This sense of ownership is critically important and positively affects employees' willingness to expend their energy and talents at a higher level.

At the same time, our research participants made it clear that there must be accountability for achieving desired levels of performance. In our interviews, most managers spoke of the importance of motivating employees, but a great percentage spoke of the importance of getting people to take ownership of their work or helping people to increase their commitment. In the words of one manager, “When people take ownership of the work, you’ve made a quantum leap that goes beyond simply trying to motivate people. … Motivating people can be viewed as a gimmick or trick, but understanding how to make people feel like owners of their operation is an organizational lifestyle issue.”

Although a manager might use one or two motivational tools to try to increase an employee’s short-term performance, the ultimate goal should be to develop and implement management practices that cause people to feel a sense of ownership and pride in their work. The difference might best be described as an employee working with you as part of the team as opposed to an employee working for you because the organizational chart requires it. When motivational techniques that have been proven to work individually are bundled together and implemented as a manager’s modus operandi, good things happen. Conversely, when motivational issues are ignored or are not taken seriously, or an organization’s culture disenfranchises people, getting results becomes much more difficult and the workplace becomes more stressful.

Practices to increase ownership of performance

Let’s review the specific things that our research has shown managers can, should and must do to increase employee ownership of performance and pose a specific question for each finding to encourage you to think about applying these principles.

Know your people. Develop a personal connection with each employee who works with you so that you know and understand each employee’s strengths and weaknesses. Managers can encourage ownership by developing trust and maintaining a productive working relationship with each of their employees. Regular interaction and ongoing communication about what needs to be done and how the employee’s talents can best be used is a great practice for creating ownership. Knowing your people can go a long way toward building trust and ownership between what you are trying to accomplish as a leader and your employee’s level of commitment to the task at hand. When a manager doesn’t know her people, it becomes difficult to utilize the talents of individual employees.

Key question: Do you really know the strengths, weaknesses and personalities of the people who work with you?

Clarify performance expectations. Delegation is the process that allocates and distributes work to employees and is critically important to create ownership of desired outcomes. Clarify each employee’s performance expectations through the delegation process so that they know their roles, goals and responsibilities, including what challenges they must meet and what work they must take ownership of. When a manager knows his employees, it makes assigning work to them a more meaningful and effective process to help match needs with individual talents. When managers assume that their employees know what their job entails or the priorities of the workload without discussion, bad things can and do happen. There is no substitute for clearly defining an employee’s performance expectations as well as seeking out employee buy-in and ownership in this process. If managers do not work hard to align employee performance expectations with the changing needs of the organization, employee ownership can be lost or misdirected with negative consequences.

Key question: Do you clarify employee expectations on an ongoing basis and seek to maximize effectiveness by matching work needs with the specific talents of individuals?

Equip, educate and empower your people to perform. When employees are trained properly and equipped to perform their work, it is much easier for them to take ownership of the results that you are seeking. When employees have not been equipped to perform their job at the highest possible level, they immediately have an excuse for not performing well and/or denying ownership of performance outcomes. Once your people are equipped to perform, educate them to understand how their work affects the outcome of the department or workgroup and organization as a whole. In addition, workers must be educated to understand how the company operates as a whole and how the organization satisfies its customers and generates profit. Empowering them with the information and providing them with the appropriate level of authority they need to do their work is paramount. When employees understand what decisions they can and cannot make and how their job adds value to the organization, taking ownership becomes a natural consequence. Finally, when employees know that they can influence such critical activities as goal setting, planning, decision making, process improvement and problem solving, ownership continues to grow. Taken together, equipping, educating and empowering your work force can go a long way in having people take responsibility for the performance outcomes you are seeking.

Key question: Have you properly equipped, educated and empowered your people to maximize their performance?

Always listen and share information. When employees have a voice around issues that affect their performance and leaders, listen to that voice and act when appropriate, good things almost always happen. When an organization creates a culture where managers listen to employees at all levels of the enterprise, they frequently have access to larger quantities of information about improving organizational efficiency and effectiveness. Listening to employees on a continuous basis sends a powerful message to everyone in the organization that “we’re in this together,” which fosters increased levels of ownership. If you couple the practice of listening with open-book management where business leaders regularly share performance and operating data with the work force, employee commitment, engagement and ownership increase. In the words of one manager, “When we listen to our people and share performance data with them, we are fostering a wide variety of positive benefits ranging from engagement to empowerment to better problem solving.”

Key question: Does your leadership style make listening to employees and sharing operating data with them a top priority?

Foster employee development. Investing in employees makes them more likely to be committed to outcomes. Once employees have been equipped and empowered to perform their jobs, they generally take on more responsibility and additional tasks. This creates the need for additional training, education and skill acquisition. When leaders help employees set up meaningful development plans to improve their talents, employees likely will become more committed to the enterprise. Employee development plans can include additional formal training, cross-training, special assignments, increased customer contact, targeted workshops and other methods. The converse is true as well. Leaders who ignore employee development don’t maximize the employees’ potential. Not equipping them to meet the changing demands of their job provides workers with excuses for not performing at a higher level. Employees who develop new talents and skills on the job view themselves as key elements in the operation’s performance.

Key question: Are you working with your people to create and execute a development plan that enhances their ability to perform at the highest level?

Celebrate success with meaningful incentives. Celebrating success can go a long way toward increasing employee ownership as workers see the link between their work performance, organizational results and successful outcomes. Many organizations fail to celebrate success, which can demoralize employees and make them unwilling to expend the effort required for higher performance. Managers in our research stated that such celebrations, both individually and collectively, should include formal and informal activities. Examples are employee recognition programs, positive feedback, gift certificates, pizza parties and merit raises. The key is to use incentives that are meaningful to your people and reward and reinforce desired performance outcomes and behavior. Remember, people want to be part of a winning enterprise because feeling successful makes it easier for people to come to work, work hard and take ownership and responsibility. Recognizing successful performance increases the desire for more successful performance. Developing linkage between desired performance and rewards demonstrates to people that there are good reasons to take more ownership over their performance.

Key question: Do you make celebrating success part of your leadership activity by using incentives that are meaningful to your people?

Practices to create accountability for results

Let’s review the specific things that our research has shown managers can, should and must do to increase employee accountability for results.

Create and use meaningful performance measurements. Once performance expectations have been established, translate expectations into measureable goals and performance outcomes that can assess or evaluate the degree to which an employee is hitting the mark. Performance metrics are important for individuals and work groups because having tangible evidence is critical to let people know that their performance is important enough to measure and monitor regularly. Managers and employees can and should agree on what the measurements are, how they will be measured, and make sure that there is buy-in from all parties concerned. Work group metrics can have a powerful effect on encouraging co-workers to work as a team and on creating peer pressure that encourages higher levels of motivation and performance. These metrics can become part of the open book information sharing previously discussed as well as becoming the baseline for celebrating success and offering effective incentives. To not have performance measurements is to throw away an opportunity to create accountability for desired results.

Key question: Have you created and are you using clearly established and understood performance measurements for both individual employees and the teams that they are part of?

Provide ongoing feedback and coach, coach, coach. Employees at all levels of an organization know that their performance is important when they receive ongoing and balanced feedback from leaders. Feedback on performance needs to be specific, timely and tied to the performance dimensions of the person’s job. Research shows that many employees do not receive balanced feedback, and when feedback does come it tends to be overly negative or too general to be of much value (for example, “that was a terrible second shift,” “good job,” “pick up the pace,” “atta boy”). Our research has made it clear that high performance leaders make it a priority to provide timely, ongoing and balanced feedback so their people have no doubt about how well they are performing at any given point in time. This knowledge is critical for making work-related adjustments, while at the same time positive feedback reinforces effective employee performance. Feedback by itself, however, is not enough, as it does not always provide a clear picture of what the employee has to do to improve performance. That is where coaching comes into play. Effective managers create accountability with their employees by offering input on how the workers can improve their performance. Without ongoing feedback and coaching, employee accountability for performance diminishes, which hampers motivation.

Key question: Do you provide your employees with ongoing, balanced feedback and coaching aimed at letting them know where they stand and what they need to do differently to improve?

Practice effective formal appraisals and reviews. Some managers consider the formal performance appraisal and review process bureaucratic hoop-jumping, but truthfully, the process can be used as a strategic planning activity for a business unit of one employee. The formal appraisal can be an excellent tool for establishing employee performance expectations, identifying resources, prioritizing activity and establishing appropriate feedback mechanisms. Most organizations require annual formal reviews, but effective managers use that document throughout the year to check on and guide employee performance and make appropriate adjustments. When a manager and an employee agree upon what the employee will be evaluated on and this information is written down, the stage is set for increased accountability. The formal review process can be a means to discuss employee contributions to the organization, employee development and corresponding rewards. All of these issues can help increase an employee’s ownership and accountability around key dimensions of their performance. It is a mistake for a manager to underestimate how influential this process can be when used throughout the year as a tool to guide and adjust employee behavior.

Key question: Do you use the formal appraisal and review process as an effective tool to establish performance parameters and guide employee performance on an ongoing basis?

Deal with nonperformers in a timely and effective fashion. Managers can send a powerful message to all employees when they know how to deal with nonperformers effectively. A department that allows nonperformers to underperform for any period of time will face a number of problems. First, the manager’s credibility is called to question. Second, employees who work with the nonperformers can become disheartened, de-motivated and even disgruntled. Third, nonperformers damage the collective performance of the work group as a whole. Effective leaders develop a corrective action plan that must be put in place or set the stage for the person’s departure from the organization. To not take these steps is to send all the wrong messages to nonperformers and performers alike. In the words of one leader, “Either change the person or change the person.”

Key question: Do you deal with nonperformers in an effective and timely fashion that lets people know that you are both fair and serious about the work group’s performance?

A call for action

Trying times require leaders to look for new and better ways of doing things, and nowhere is this more true than in efforts to make workers more productive in serving organizations. When business leaders are willing to take proactive steps to increase employee ownership and accountability, good things happen. When these same issues are ignored, leaders fail to maximize their employees’ performance potential, which can create real problems for leaders at every level. The research makes it clear that managers must constantly be willing to learn new and better ways of doing things if they are to enhance their career success.

Figure 1 provides an opportunity to assess your effectiveness on each of the 10 key motivational practices to increase ownership and accountability discussed in this article. Any areas found to be lacking provide a great opportunity to take specific actions that can have a profound effect on the productivity and performance of your people.

In the words of Thoreau, “This time, like all time, is a good time if we know but what to do with it.”

Clinton O. Longenecker is a business consultant, author, speaker, executive coach and is the Stranahan Professor of Leadership and Organizational Excellence at the University of Toledo. He has published more than 130 journal articles and is the co-author of the best-selling books, Two Minute Drill: Lessons on Rapid Organizational Improvement from America’s Greatest Game and Getting Results: Five Absolutes for High Performance. Longenecker specializes in rapid performance improvement in both his research and consulting. 


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