Employee motivation is the holy grail for learning and development professionals. It’s a field populated by a complex blend of psychology, behavioral economics, and occasionally, pure guesswork. But despite all the training out there, most managers still struggle to motivate employees. They try different incentive plans and methods but still find themselves asking what more they can do to stimulate their people.
That’s a problem. Asking oneself what can be done to motivate others is pointless, however, because no matter how hard one tries, he or she cannot motivate anyone.
People are pre-motivated by their own unique self-interest. Unless one’s actions directly address an employee’s unique triggers, any motivational initiatives are likely to fail. So, instead of implementing across-the-board strategies in the name of best practice, take a step back, find out what employees expect from their jobs, and try to address their needs.
Of course, when one manages a team, keeping track of so many individual needs is a large task. Where should one start? I have used a two-step approach:
1. Find out what they want.
2. Address their needs in the normal course of daily work.
Every employee has three buckets of expectations in the workplace (RED):
• What is my role?
• What is my work environment like?
• How will I develop my skills and career?
While each employee’s needs are different, all have needs in these three buckets. To some, one bucket may be more important than others, but all have questions in each bucket.
Role: Employees want to understand the nature of their work. The role must provide adequate challenge, fit meaningfully within the overall big picture, provide adequate freedom to do the job well and align with personal purpose and values. Meaningful work they can relate to on an emotional level is important to most high performers and to Generation Y in particular.
Environment: This bucket is about how it feels to be part of a team and whether the work environment is in accordance with employees’ personal values. If meritocracy is important to an employee, he or she will not thrive in an environment that believes in giving equal bonuses to all. If autonomy is important to another, that individual will not excel in a regimented environment.
Development: Growing skills and career development are important to most employees. While choosing between jobs, candidates often opt for the one that offers better learning and development prospects. Learning leaders who have a reputation for investing time to develop their people tend to have an easier time attracting the best talent.
Learning leaders can use RED as a framework for conversations with employees. The goal is to learn as much as possible about each employee’s preferences in each bucket, and the only way to do that is to ask questions. Start using every opportunity to ask questions about role, environment and development.
Once one understands the employees’ needs, one can begin to address them in the course of daily work. The key is to label and link. When assigning work, discuss why it might be a good fit for the particular employee. Whether it will help an individual succeed at his or her goals — role; stretch him or her and provide new experiences — development; or give that individual a chance to collaborate — environment. Tell the employee these things. Don’t expect him or her to put two and two together — label it, link it and spell out why certain opportunities are developmentally beneficial or will facilitate career advancement. Don’t leave it to chance when another minute of conversation can make sure everyone is on the same page.
The bottom line is: If one is trying to motivate employees without knowing what they want, he or she is operating in a vacuum. So stop trying and start asking.
Rajeev Peshawaria is CEO of the ICLIF Leadership and Governance Centre and author of Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders: The Three Essential Principles You Need to Be an Extraordinary Leader. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.