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Steel, bombs impossible targets. Some challenges on how to motivate employees.

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Employee motivation is core to every successful business. Without a motivated workforce that delivers its best for our customers, business targets and objectives will be seriously challenged.

This article introduces three foundations for motivating employees.

How do we motivate people? How do we motivate employees?  Motivating others is at the heart of management and leadership. Actually, it’s even simpler. Motivating people is at the heart of all social interaction, as simple as it is profound.

Focusing on the workplace, consider this collage created from real stories of several senior City-executives who I have recently coached. To what extent do you think management really thought about how to motivate employees, particularly the following key individual, to higher performance?

At the annual performance/target-setting meeting, a highly successful world-class senior consultant within a global firm had two surprises: (1) his annual target was to increase from £1.5 to £2 million, without discussion, and (2) his performance was rated as ‘needs improvement’ given that he’d only achieved 80% of the £1.5M target. Having previously always been rated ‘outstanding’, he worked 80-hour-+ weeks and was on-track to deliver £1.5M in the current year, in a market that everyone recognised as ‘tough’. To him, the higher target was impossible. Fear initially gripped him, quickly followed by outrage at the lack of discussion that had preceded the meeting. Though within the hour he knew that he wanted to work through the issues, he wasn’t sure, given how the meeting had gone, that it could be worked out.

Manifestly, motivation was shattered. Three fundamental survival reactions kicked-in: flight, fight, put it right.

Therefore, how we motivate employees, at its simplest, has three basic starting points:

1. Remove their fear

We are all motivated to survive, to gain distance from what we fear – i.e. loss of face, loss of position. Though removing fear is unlikely to motivate employees per se, its removal eliminates a source of de-motivation and lets people refocus on that which excites and enthuses them – i.e. success in the job at hand. Consider the de-motivation that the UK’s 15000 steel workers must be experiencing (April 2016) given TATA’s decision to sell their interests in UK steelworks, putting jobs and pensions at risk. One possible new owner, demanding a 3% wages cut across the board, may not be seen as a harbinger of motivation; they do notwithstanding offer relief. This ‘get-out-of-jail’ card could allow steel workers to refocus on the things that motivate them to go to work every morning – i.e. to provide for their families, maintain their life-styles and live with dignity.

2. Communicate fairly and transparently 

We are all motivated by the knowledge that we matter, that ‘the bosses’ are looking after our interests. Timely communication obviates surprises. Even if the message is not good news, timely communication gives employees a sense that they are respected, an important message for those inclined to fight back. When one significant client decided to sell/shut down a manufacturing operation that provided employment for a highly-dependent population in a critical geography, they carefully scripted their communication to ensure all employees and stakeholders were informed and retained their dignity through the process.

3. Work through their issues

Moreover, involve your people in putting things right. To a greater or lesser extent, we are all motivated to have a sense of control over our destiny – to secure the destiny of those we love.  Surprises shatter all sense of control. I was with a client in Brussels on March 22nd Within minutes that the bombs exploded, first in the airport then in an underground station, members of the management team quickly corralled their people into taking appropriate action – for employees and their relatives, for customers, for the business premises. All three activity-strands came together as groups formed to think through what needed to happen and then dispersed to take action. Motivation triumphed as people worked through the issues to maintain professional dignity and to keep ‘the show on the road’.

    We all know that, as organisations, we can reap enormous benefits when we truly think through how to motivate employees – and take effective action.  

    Cora Lynn Heimer Rathbone

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