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Blaire Palmer

That People Thing

Author, speaker, agent provocateur for senior leaders and their teams

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Employee engagement: ‘motivation’ is dead, it’s time to find new ways to empower your team


'Motivation' used to be all the rage when it came to employee engagement, but today's workforce needs a more subtle approach that takes their own needs and priorities into account. 

Remember when motivation was all the rage? We had the motivational posters and the motivational speakers and the motivation theories differentiating between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. We were all supposed to be motivated all the time and it was the job of the leader to motivate their people.

There’s nothing wrong with the concept, of course. When people find the drive to do well, to do more and to solve problems within themselves they are much more valuable to the company than those people who don’t see the point.

Did motivation ever sit comfortably with us Brits?

We tend not to talk about motivation so much these days though. For one thing, it never really sat that comfortably with us Brits. It was always a little too American, putting one in mind of characters like Tony Robbins.

I was once at a Microsoft conference in Seattle where I watched Steve Ballmer spring from one side of the stage to the other waving his arms about and working everyone from that side of the Atlantic up in to a frenzy.

The team of British facilitators, including myself, watched with anthropological curiosity but didn’t particularly want to join in.

The language has moved on...

The language has diversified now too. We talk of engaging, empowering, even inspiring people. Motivation has become part of a more dynamic picture rather than the single greatest priority.

We want people to participate, to lead (even if they don’t have a leadership title), to innovate, to collaborate.

We want them to go beyond motivation to find meaning and purpose in their work. That’s the HR holy grail. Simply being motivated isn’t good enough now.

The logistics and mechanics of moving beyond motivation

The question is, what are the mechanics of making that happen? It was so easy in the Motivation Era.

You put on a big event, maybe with an awards ceremony attached, a sporting hero as your after dinner speaker, a bit of a disco (where the CEO and the HRD threw down some shapes and busted some moves to great embarrassment all round) while everyone complained that the money would have been better spent on sorting out the temperature in the office and not letting Barbara from Accounts go.

What worked when it was new and fresh doesn’t necessarily have the same effect today.

The legacy of motivation continues in an age where it no longer has the impact. I rather like a big, flamboyant conference with a free bar provided by group headquarters (who wouldn’t?) and suspect that the value of such events often surpasses the cost in terms of having people feel valued and providing an opportunity to connect with long lost colleagues (and that’s even with the bitching about budget).

Companies that rely purely on roadshows and town halls, however, may not be motivating people in the way they think they are. What worked when it was new and fresh doesn’t necessarily have the same effect today.

If all you need to do is gee people up, a bit of rah rah might do it for a bit, but if you need people to connect their work with their meaning and purpose it could even be counter productive.

The problem of doing what you've always done

Unfortunately many companies are in the habit of rolling out the same series of events because they used to work 10 years ago. There’s a bit of ego in it too – the CEO gets to be on stage, members of the board like having their photo taken with Kevin Keegan.

Why would you give that up?

The problem with town halls and roadshows, inspirational quotes on the wall and screensavers with the company’s values on, is that they are generic. They don’t connect with what really drives individual people.

The businesses that succeed in future will be those where people are willing to bring their whole selves to work. In order to do that they need to feel valued for their individuality, not part of a faceless mass.

A self-actualised employee doesn’t really respect the hierarchy, doesn’t want to be told what to do, doesn’t want to blend in.

A self-actualised employee wants to partner, to co-create, to collaborate. To create self-actualised employees you can’t treat them like industrial aged workers. They will either revert to behaving like clocking in, clocking out automatons or they will take their passion, their individuality and their desire for meaning and purpose elsewhere.

How do we encourage people to bring their whole selves to work?

What’s needed today is a more subtle, low-key approach to tapping in to what drives your people.

If you want people to bring their whole selves to work, you need to give them opportunities to be their whole selves.

Just recently I’ve seen some lovely examples of this individual approach to what we used to call motivation:  

  • An informal lunch with a few new hires
  • Organising listening sessions where people just talk to leaders about whatever is on their mind
  • Dial-in meditation sessions
  • Facilities where people can find quiet spaces to reflect, catch up on personal to dos or have a nap
  • Leaders blogging live during their team offsites so that the guys back at base know where their boss has gone today and what topics are on the table
  • Companies that give staff the freedom to get work done in a way that delivers the best result rather than requiring them to sit at a desk from 9 until 5
  • Asking staff to think about how budgets could be spent on engagement rather than halting all “fun” activities because it would be unseemly to set aside cash for that at this time
  • “Marketplaces” for connecting people with the various CSR programmes that the company offers

There is still room for the big, blousy events. Don’t stop the roadshows just yet - but don’t get lazy either.

Ask yourselves whether the formats you use to communicate and connect with your people are past their sell-by-date and whether they are driven more by ego, status and a discomfort with looking people in the eye than by a real commitment to your people being part of the journey you’re taking, together.

Ask yourself whether you’re working really trying to keep your people motivated or whether you could be working far less hard by helping them to care.

Want to learn more about this topic? Read Employee engagement: why happiness at work matters and how to encourage it.

7 Responses

  1. I couldn’t agree more!
    I couldn’t agree more!

    In both a motivational and a learning and development context, too many organisations rely on one-time events only, tick them off an action list and say to themselves “There, fixed that.” What they miss is that it’s not enough to just put a message out there or have one meeting or a two-day training – it needs to be embedded in the culture of an organisation so that it forms the bedrock of everyone’s actions within the business.

  2. Blaire! This made me laugh
    Blaire! This made me laugh – especially the comment about the money could be better spent fixing the temperature in the office! So true. And a lovely list of innovative ideas – in this day and age the company that innovates with what technology is now offering us will lead the way. Nice to see / touch base with you again!

  3. The reason motivation as a
    The reason motivation as a movement never worked in the first place is that it requires an optimum level of emotional arousal I the individual to be effective. Motivational speakers simply shifted the audiences’ arousal level from a place where they were either unmotivated or thinking critically. It’s a pretty easy stunt to pull and actors do this all the time. In this area of optimal arousal that we call motivated we feel creative and in the ‘flow’. Unfortunately as many a researcher in teaching and learning will testify this arousal level can only be sustained for about twenty minutes after which there needs to be shift in activity. This knowledge has informed teaching strategies but we are still waiting for it to be put into widespread practice. Ask anyone twenty minutes after a motivational speech if they are still going to go back to the workplace and change the world and they will probably say “Well I was, then!” For more information on how emotional arousal affects our motivation see my article on The Training Zone: ‘Why Brainstorming doesn’t work – and how it might!’:

  4. Blaire, this was a very good
    Blaire, this was a very good read and reminded me of the term ‘good will’ which has to be applied to motivation from managers and employees. In my early days I was involved in manufacturing and two instances can show how it went well and how it went wrong: one was cancelling a children’s Christmas party – went down like a lead balloon and good will was lost. The other situation, that zapped me, was the CEO turning up in the middle of the night during a re-engineering project during a shut-down period and buying the fish & chips for the guys – outstanding.

  5. Managers should try to make
    Managers should try to make the things more similar to the task so that it can be helpful for the people who are working on it as there are many things which manager have to look for an SEO agency California have to embark upon this thing and they have shared many articles which are listed for the betterment of the managers and they should look for that thing more properly.

  6. Your anecdote about British
    Your anecdote about British discomfort with US style motivational events rings true. In my view the issue here relates to subtle differences in the way that UK and US communicators and possibly audiences prioritise messages competing for attention. There is a strong belief in the US that positive messages about future prospects for hope, opportunity, success and prosperity will be well received by local audiences nurtured on the prospect of achieving “The American Dream”. This belief might be true, or it might be not. However, as a result US workers have become accustomed to employers who deluge them with optimism and positivity and are happy to ‘play the game’ with apparent enthusiasm and without embarrassment. Here in the Old World it is more commonly assumed that workers recognise the world is a dark and complex environment where opportunities are scarce, nothing comes easy and change brings threats as well as opportunities. This means messages are crafted to acknowledge these things and to prioritise the importance of making urgent personal and organisational changes to reduce worry, improve prospects, avoid failure and the risk of financial loss. Cynical audiences accustomed to this more negative European approach generally find US style motivational events that urge them to “march forward together into a bright new tomorrow” toe-curlingly embarrassing. In general the British would much rather focus on acknowledging and eliminating problems and on dealing with urgent organisational threats so their business can go on to prosper. Speakers that offer future opportunity without acknowledging current business problems are simply disregarded as embarrassingly naiive or misguided. The audience is therefore actually embarrassed for them, not by them….

  7. This article is refreshing.
    This article is refreshing. We started a change process about 18 months ago and the first implementation the CEO made was to introduce town halls and grand events but the engagement was still lacking and there staff turnover was still above where we wanted to be. Only now are we starting to use innovation and collaboration to come up with more meaningful and productive initiatives and I love the list of tips and ideas you give!

Author Profile Picture
Blaire Palmer

Author, speaker, agent provocateur for senior leaders and their teams

Read more from Blaire Palmer

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