How Lack of Motivation is Killing Your Company

How Lack of Motivation is Killing Your Company

[Updated November 5, 2013]: In rereading this post of mine from originally published December 21, 2010, I realized that I missed out on two important management practices that can hinder employee motivation: failure to recognize and reward performance, and failure to deal with performance problems. So I thought I’d add them now.

Motivation is the force that converts intention into action. In a work setting, it’s the drive that helps maintain goal-directed performance. For over 40 years, scientists and business researchers have conducted numerous studies to determine what incentives help motivate employees. So many companies spend thousands of dollars hiring outside firms to give motivation seminars, realizing that by nurturing the talent of individuals and building stronger teams, they can help cultivate a happy work environment.

What’s happinessgot to dowith business?

A lot.

Have you ever gone above and beyond to perform a task you were given no incentive to do and that you saw little to no value in? An unhappy worker does only the minimum to avoid being fired. A happy worker on the other hand, finds value in the work they do and feels fulfilled doing it.

Even more incredible, a happy worker isn’t necessarily driven by money! Well, not just by money…

Types of motivation

Motivation can be activated by intrinsic or extrinsic factors.

Intrinsic motivators include: Achievement, advancement, recognition, growth, responsibility

Extrinsic motivators include:Salary, benefits, working conditions, supervision, policy, safety, security

Herzberg’s two-factor theory

Frederick Herzberg is one of the most influential names in business management and is most famous for introducing the Motivator-Hygienetheory (a.k.a. the two-factor theory), which disputes the idea that money and benefits motivate employees.

This theory draws many parallels to Maslow’s hierarchy of needsand provides substantial evidence that workers cannot be satisfied by having only their hygiene factors met (i.e. security, salary, working conditions).

Note: They are called hygiene factors because like hygiene, their absence can lead to dissatisfaction, however their presence does not necessarily lead to satisfaction

Rather, an extremely satisfied employee looks for the gratification of higher-level psychological needs (motivators) having to do with achievement, recognition, responsibility, advancement, and the nature of the work itself.

The graphic below shows the results of Herzberg’s study. He conducted interviews with 203 American accountants and engineers, comparing factors on the job that led to extreme dissatisfaction with those that led to extreme satisfaction.

Image source

He concluded that hygiene factors are needed to ensure an employee is not dissatisfied. But motivation factors are needed to motivate an employee to higher performance.

The candle problem

To illustrate just how much humans are driven by intrinsic motivators, let’s look at a famous experiment called the Candle Problem. In 1945, Gestalt psychologist Karl Duncker conducted an experiment to test a person’s problem-solving skills when a “mental block” was planted in the setting.

He presented participants with a candle, a box of thumb tacks and a book of matches, and asked them to affix the candle to the wall such that it would not drip wax onto the table.

Participants made various unsuccessful attempts. They tried tacking the candle directly to the wall with the tacks. They tried melting the bottom of the candle and adhering it to the wall.

Duncker presented the same problem to another focus group. Again, participants were presented with a candle, a box, thumb tacks and a book of matches. The difference this time- the tacks were next to the box, not inside it.

When the task was presented this way, virtually all of the participants were able to solve the problem. They put the candle in the box and tacked the box to the wall.

The science of motivation

In Duncker’s terms, the first group of participants experienced functional fixedness. Essentially, they were “fixated” on the box’s normal function of holding thumbtacks and could not re-conceptualize it in a manner that allowed them to solve the problem.

Now, here’s how this study relates to motivation.

A scientist named Sam Glucksberg conducted the same experiment, however in his version one of the groups was given a cash prize incentive if they solved the problem faster than the average person who took the test. Surprisingly, members of this group took three and a half minutes longer (on average) to complete the task.

This phenomenon is coined the overjustification effect. It’s when external incentives such as money or prizes actually decrease a person’s intrinsic motivation to perform a task because they begin to pay more attention to the incentive and less attention to the enjoyment and satisfaction they receive from performing the activity.

What these experiments show is that the secret to high performance is not necessarily rewards and punishments, but rather it’s the drive to do things because they matter.

Common organizational and managerial practices that kill motivation

Managers who’ve been able to motivate their employees successfully realize how easy it is to achieve tasks when employees feel inspired. However, there are many organizational and managerial practices that can kill employee motivation.

Here are some of the major ones to avoid:

Failure to recognize and reward performance:

When employees never get any rewards or recognition for their work, they quickly start to feel that no one cares. And if no one cares, why should they bother putting in the extra effort. Managers are often quick to dole out the criticism or correction when needed, but slow to dish out the praise.

Bottom line: It’s important for the company to have formal and informal programs that allow managers to recognize and reward great performance. And it’s vital for managers to make it a practice to regularly acknowledge and thank employees for their hard work and efforts. We know that regular and appropriate recognition lead to higher employee motivation and engagement.

Failure to deal with performance problems:

Because it can be hard or unpleasant to deal with performance problems, managers and organizations often tend to turn a blind eye to the problems. But failing to address performance issues and work with the employees in question improve their performance is huge motivation killer for all your other employees. The message that they take away is that it’s OK to be a sub-par worker. And they often resent the extra work or burden this causes them as they try to cover for the poor performer or deal with the consequences of their low performance.

Bottom line: It’s important to deal with performance problems as they arise. Provide low performers with feedback, coaching and development to help bring their performance back up to standard. And if that fails, take measures to move them out of their role. If you don’t, your star performers will lose motivation, start to slack off, or worse yet, leave your department or organization for greener pastures.

Unfair treatment:

When employees perceive corporate policies or individual treatment as unfair or hypocritical, not only are they less inclined to perform tasks optimally, they distance themselves from the organization. In the worst cases, they reject it and leave it altogether. Trust is difficult to gain and easy to lose.

Bottom line: It’s important for the company to have clear, fair and transparent policies that are communicated in a way that make people can feel safe to bring up concerns if they don’t agree with a particular regulation.

Also, fairness and honesty should be virtues to live by in the treatment of all employees. Fairness entails equal respect and opportunity for all. Honesty is having the ability to permeate sincerity and frankness into all your dealings — whether with staff, clients or suppliers.

Inconsistent goals:

Have you ever been working on a task when, mid-way through it a superior or a client has had a sudden epiphany and wants you to completely change the direction you’re going?

Without clear task descriptions, performance goals and feedback, it’s very difficult for people to feel committed to their work. Living with the uncertainty that goals could change at any moment, they’re not inclined to give their best effort. Setting S.M.A.R.T short and long-term goals can help prevent this. Everyone should know exactly what they’re expected to do this week, this month, and to some degree, this year.

Bottom line: Employees are more likely to feel their work has value and meaning when they can align their objectives with the company’s overall business goals.

Unnecessary policies and arbitrary barriers:

As we saw earlier in Herzberg’s study of motivation, company policies and administration can be the highest cause for job dissatisfaction. Again, the company needs to have clear, fair and transparent policies. These policies should be implemented because they are necessary and beneficial. This may entail having to revise policies and eliminate all unnecessary, arbitrary rules.

Bottom line: Essentially, policies and procedures should be instilled to simplify organizational work processes, not make them more complicated and time consuming.

Fostering a competitive work climate:

A little healthy competition can be a great way to get employees motivated. However, when individuals or teams start turning against each other, the sum is no longer greater than its parts. People may have different tasks, but those tasks should be working to achieve one ultimate goal.

Bottom line: Team-building definitely increases collaboration and cooperation between team members, but it has to do the same for the teams that make up the organization as a whole. Perhaps, instead of fostering competition, you should consider other motivational techniques that could achieve similar results with less risk.

Poor feedback:

Feedback can be very tricky. And, if not delivered in the right way, it can cause serious performance decline. Kluger and DeNisi’s work on the influence of feedback interventions on performance concluded that one third of feedback interventions actually result in decreased performance. When feedback emphasized negative qualities of the performer, performance deteriorated.

Bottom line: Feedback can’t always be positive but it should be delivered properly. Ideally, it should be given on an ongoing basis. Feedback on issues or successes should be given when these occur. This can make it easier to both deliver and receive the feedback. Well-delivered “negative” feedback begins with a description of what the person has accomplished, the goal they were attempting to reach, followed by a discussion of ways they can bridge the gap between the two.

Whenever there is an opportunity for positive feedback, take it and fill your employee with praise, so they see value in work they do.

How to motivate your employees

The equation is quite simple:

High levels of motivation = High levels of productivity

Listed in no particular order, here are some effective ways to motivate your employees:

1. Boost employee’s self-confidence in their work skills

You can’t be responsible for people’s self-confidence but you CAN boost your employees’ confidence about their work skills. When an employee is reassured that they have the skills required to succeed at a task, the quality and quantity of effort invested into the task increases significantly. You can do this by reminding the employee of a past success, or by giving them ongoing and timely feedback on their accomplishments and strengths.

2. Create a positive work environment

A positive work environment is founded on trust, open communication, team spirit, recognition, appreciation, and positivity. But physical surroundings also have an impact. To optimize employee performance, the physical environment of the workplace should be clean, bright, attractive and cheerful. It should have as much natural light as possible, and each staff member should be allowed to personalize their workspace with plants, pictures etc.

3. Create value for work

One of the secrets to getting employees to value their work is to give them more responsibility and more autonomy. Google’s 20 per cent rule in which employees are told to take 20 per cent of the work week to pursue their own projects, or the more extreme ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) are becoming increasingly popular structural alternatives that can yield incredible results from employees.

This model may not work for every industry but it does challenge traditional methods and leave the future open for new possibilities. We feel more intrinsic motivation when we’re responsible for our actions. By giving an individual or a team permission to plan and self-organize, they develop feelings of mutual obligation with a strong sense of worth in the work they do.

4. Match employees’ work with their skills and interests

Another way to intrinsically motivate employees is to match employees with their skills and interests. Getting to know your employees on an individual basis gives you great insight into each person’s strengths, weaknesses and interests. Dispatching tasks to the best possible person for the job becomes a cinch when you know exactly who would do it best. When work is suited to a person, they are likely to excel.

When people feel confident about their skills, they are more inclined to master them. Having a workforce where you enable employees to master new skills helps them add to their expertise, which is a benefit for the company on the whole.

Motivation key to business success

Understanding how to motivate employees is a critical aspect of running a successful business. Money and security may be good initial incentives to get employees to work, but praise and recognition are what will help them achieve incredible things.

In 2009, career analyst Daniel Pink (also Al Gore’s former speechwriter) gave a great TED talk on the surprising science of motivation. He suggests three ways to help motivate employees: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. This entails trusting your employees, enabling them to hone their skills and giving them a sense of purpose in the work they do.

There’s also a great animated video that illustrates Pink’s philosophy that you can view here.

Helpful Resources

NEW ebook: How to shift from traditional to ongoing performance management

NEW ebook: How to shift from traditional to ongoing performance management


How to select a talent management system: Secrets from the experts

How to select a talent management system: Secrets from the experts


ebook: Discover 5 ways to transform the annual performance review

ebook: Discover 5 ways to transform the annual performance review

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