Q: I am the office manager of a small insurance firm. I have been here nine months and have noticed that our work environment seems pretty poor. Some of our employees do not seem very motivated, don’t care about their jobs or have bad attitudes. This is not the case for all of us but for many. What can be done about this situation?

A: How do you motivate employees? How do you keep them engaged in their jobs? There are thousands of books and management theories written on this topic. This is a serious, perplexing issue for many managers and there can be a tendency to look for quick fixes and short term responses, which seldom work.

Work cultures characterized by low morale and unmotivated, disengaged employees result in serious waste, inefficiencies, low productivity and turnover. Unfortunately, there is much to suggest that many employees are “often checked out” while on the job.

The Gallup Management Journal’s semi-annual Employee Engagement Index puts the current percentage of truly “engaged” employees at 29 percent. A slim majority, 54 percent, falls into the “not engaged” category, while 17 percent of employees are “actively disengaged.” (see inset)

Gallup reports that losses in productivity from actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. economy roughly $300 billion.

So how do you keep employees engaged in their jobs and caring about their own performance and the overall health of the organization? We have always found useful a concept put forth by the management guru Frederick Herzberg over 40 years ago. It has held the test of time and is believed by many to still hold great relevance today for leaders and managers committed to building a stimulating and motivating work environment.

In short, Herzberg believed true intrinsic motivation – the willingness to take initiative and “go the extra mile” – came from within a person, not from extrinsic incentives or threats of punishment. Through numerous studies, he found that decent salaries and benefits, good supervision and positive work conditions (extrinsic incentives) were essential to avoiding employee dissatisfaction. However, these factors often provided only short-term motivation.

If management really wanted to increase employees’ job satisfaction and motivation over the long term, in addition to fair pay, benefits, etc, they needed to take a hard look at their jobs and make sure the employees are being effectively utilized. He argued that job enrichment (not to be confused with job enlargement, which means giving employees more of the same tasks) was critical and a continuous, top-priority management process. Specifically, job enrichment meant that:

  • Employers should understand employees’ various abilities and ensure the jobs provide sufficient challenge to utilize their full capacities.
  • Employee achievement should be recognized.
  • Employees who demonstrate increasing levels of ability should be given increasing levels of responsibilities.
  • Employees should have the opportunity to grow and learn new things.

Management’s role is key to job enrichment as they must possess the vision and deep understanding of their employees’ potential and their core work processes.

So, here are a few questions to consider related to your important question:

  • Does your management recognize that many employees seem uninterested or disengaged in their jobs?
  • Does your work culture encourage employee contributions through, for example, teamwork, risk taking and frank discussion?
  • Does management know if employees feel challenged or effectively utilized in their jobs?
  • Do they ever ask?

A good place to start is to simply ask these questions of employees through honest discussions and/or employee opinion surveys. Issues surrounding low morale at the workplace do not go away. As Peter Drucker, another seminal thinker around management practices, said, “The only things that evolve by themselves in an organization are disorder, friction and malperformance.” Creating a collaborative, supportive and productive work culture takes intention and focus. Involving employees in decisions that affect their jobs and the workplace is a good place to start.

 

Comments:

I am constantly perplexed by the short-sighted attitude of owners of companies when it comes to spending a relatively small amount of money to make their employees happy. In the current economy where so many employees are doing their job and that of someone who was let go, without additional compensation, it seems very clear cut to me. In order to boost morale, improve productivity and retain your employees, you need to provide a way for employees to reduce their stress on the job. There is so much research to substantiate this. Give your employees a 15 minute massage every week, entertain them during a “Lunch and Learn”,  provide a Kickboxing or a Meditation class. The dollars you invest in your people will come back to you fivefold.

— Leslie Kahn, October 21, 2009