5 tips to motivate your staff

02 September 2014

One of the biggest challenges managers face is creating a work environment in which employees are intrinsically motivated, rather than being motivated by carrots and sticks. Employee engagement is more than job satisfaction. It is found where work is absorbing, and to which employees feel naturally dedicated; work that one gets wrapped up in and is energised by. It is quite possible for an individual to be perfectly satisfied with a job and yet not engaged in it. Engaged employees are prepared to go beyond the call of duty and actually drive the business. Here are five tips from Professor James Hayton on how to boost employee engagement.

1. The mating game

Engagement means being passionately absorbed by your work. This means that you have to attract those people who would love to work at your company. It means recruitment is no longer a hunt for talent performed by the employer, but a mating game involving the attraction of partners suited to one another.

An organisation needs to make itself attractive to the people it wants to hire and show why they would enjoy working there. This begins before we even start the recruitment process. Firms signal their values and what it means to work for them through their employment brand. This is where a company’s vision and mission actually matter: these are the values that are communicated, and which start the conversation with the next generation of employees.

If you do this well, you attract the people that share the same values. At the next stage, job applicants may be given realistic information about what it is like working for your company. Have them interviewed by their future co-workers, for example. A classic example is Southwest Airlines, which has a strong employment brand and became known as the ‘Love Airline’, partly because it flew out of Love Field in Dallas, but also because it ‘loves’ its employees and customers and makes flying fun, so they attract people who buy into that. At Southwest Airlines, job candidates are interviewed by their future co-workers to ensure they understand and fit in with the airline’s values from the start.

2. Company tales

We are natural storytellers, so nothing works better at inculcating the values and mission of a company than a good tale. All firms have numerous stories that are passed from one employee to the next and which serve to communicate important norms and values. The story of Art Fry’s invention and promotion of the Post-It note at 3M is used to reinforce the values placed upon innovation and persistence at that organisation. Stories might include dealing with a difficult customer, or challenges the founder overcame in building the company. Stories are powerful as they embody complex information that is more easily recalled than abstract concepts.

To motivate staff and have them fully engaged with the company, these stories help by focusing and communicating the values of the company at an almost sub-conscious level. Stories of Steve Jobs’ notoriously high standards undoubtedly motivate the pursuit of excellence by employees at Apple. There  is a story of an employee of Southwest Airlines actually looking after a customer’s dog (the customer was unaware of the no-pets policy) so that they could still take a weekend trip with the airline. Stories like these embody and communicate values – and ensure that employees understand and share the core values of the organisation. Alignment of personal and organisational values is essential for employee engagement.

3. Super supervisors

A bad line manager or supervisor can destroy staff motivation. All the work put into boosting employee engagement can quickly be swept away by poor management. The immediate supervisor needs to have good relations with their staff, treat them fairly, give useful direction and valuable feedback. Perhaps most importantly, good supervisors are able to give reasons for decisions: not just communicating the decision itself, but the reasoning behind the decision. The interpersonal justice created by the supervisor or line manager is key to maintaining individual engagement.

Employee engagement is also enhanced by feeling autonomous: having the ability to choose how to do your work. Therefore, another challenge for line managers is being there when staff need them, and not when they don’t.  Micro-management destroys engagement. Ultimately, supervision is a hygiene factor when it comes to engagement: good supervision can’t in itself raise engagement, but it can destroy it.

4. Friend factory

We are social animals. This means that a significant driver of engagement is having friends at work (or at least compatible co-workers). Co-workers provide social and emotional support as well as potentially providing practical support and guidance. An interesting finding from recent research is that the more supportive your co-workers are to you, the more you feel valued by the organisation.

Many companies spend a great deal of time designing their offices in order to encourage employees to talk to one another. Exchanging ideas and experiences also supports this building of relationships between employees. Building a supporting social environment means growing trust, a sense of community and ultimately feelings of belonging can promote engagement. Google has designed its London office with the focus on building a community, adding a café, music-jamming room and plenty of meeting points to get people interacting, sharing ideas, inspiring each other and bonding.

5. Psychological ownership

Building a sense of loyalty and desire to remain with and identify with the organisation is vital in engaging employees. Particularly in jobs where employees already earn above the level required for a comfortable lifestyle, organisational commitment is more important than the level of pay.

Employees will give back to their employer to the extent that they feel valued by it. Behavioural engagement – helping co-workers and being supportive of the organisation, being a ‘promoter’ – is part of a reciprocal exchange relationship between employee and organisation that is more than an economic transaction. Employers can drive this sort of positive social exchange behaviour when they demonstrate commitment to their employees. For example, an employer shows that it values its workforce by investing in their personal development. Where employees are given the opportunity to develop valued skills and knowledge, this creates a debt of gratitude that can be repaid in higher commitment and work effort.

Similarly, where employers give employees a sense of psychological ownership through opportunities to participate in important decisions, or through share ownership, employees are more likely to go above and beyond and feel a strong bond with the organisation. This is the effect that the John Lewis Partnership achieves through its employee-ownership strategy: the result is a high degree of dedication and reputation for high levels of customer service.

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