A few weeks ago I attended a presentation by Charles Jacobs, author of Management Rewired.  It was a fantastic talk about how our brains work, and particularly how motivation works (or doesn’t) in the workplace.  I walked away with a brand new understanding about management that’s incredibly simple and important to the happiness of employees.

Let’s talk about motivation for a minute and think about the conventional wisdom on how to improve employee performance.  If you manage by the old-school “command and control” model, the answer is “tell people what to do and they do it”.  But I doubt you do manage that way since it has become abundantly clear that it’s totally ineffective.   More recently managers have shifted to a feedback or coaching based model.  Agree on goals, set target behaviors that you want your team members to exhibit, and then give them timely feedback:

  • Positive reinforcement for good work
  • Constructive criticism for areas that need to improve

So what’s the problem?

It doesn’t work any better than the old model.

Positive reinforcement doesn’t improve performance, it just maintains it.  If you tell people they are doing a great job, they keep doing what they are doing – they don’t do it any better.  And constructive criticism has an even worse effect.  Criticism actually diminishes performance rather than improving it.

So praise doesn’t improve performance (although it does prevent it from deteriorating – people do like to be appreciated for what they do and they notice if they aren’t) and negative reinforcement makes things worse.  What’s a manager to do?

Well first off don’t throw out all the feedback.  Positive reinforcement can and should be used when someone is learning a new skill.  Let’s take dolphins as an example. Have you ever seen a trained dolphin perform? They do some unbelievable tricks, and if you ask the trainers how they do it, they’ll tell you that it’s 100% positive reinforcement. Any behavior the dolphin exhibits that the trainer doesn’t like, they simply ignore. This process is called conditioning in the world of psychology. And while we can certainly condition our great team members to follow the rules, it doesn’t lead to innovation or high performance, mainly because humans are a bit more complex than dolphins when it comes to motivation.

So now on to what does work:

What makes people feel engaged and happy is self-direction.

If I order my tasks based on what I think is the best use of my time, I’m much more likely to work hard and do a good job.  If my boss comes and gives me a list, in order, of what she thinks I should be working on I’m much more likely to want a cup of coffee and to start polishing up my resume.

As Tony Schwartz writes in the Harvard Business Review, recent studies have shown a strong correlation between employee engagement and autonomy:

Specifically, Towers Watson concludes that organizations must create policies and practices that make it possible for employees to better manage their workload, live more balanced lives and exercise greater autonomy around how, when, and where they get their work done.

What it comes down to is having choices. Workers who feel like they are free to choose their own direction are more willing to be accountable for the results, work harder and better on the tasks that they choose, and are more likely to describe themselves as happy in their jobs. This is especially true for high performers. In a recently released survey by Custom Insight, the top 20% most engaged employees listed autonomy as the 5th most important driver of engagement, and the top 10% listed it as the second most important driver, coming in just behind “personal expression”.  In other words great people want the ability to speak up about what they think is right, and they want the freedom to act on those ideas.

What’s so great about engaged employees?

There is a direct and profound relationship between the level of employee engagement at a point in time and the performance of that company at a later point in time. Or in simple terms, happiness and productivity go together. Engaged employees are more likely to contribute great ideas, notice problems, worry about customer satisfaction, and care about doing a great job. So beyond any other metric of productivity or performance, employee engagement has the most direct impact on your company’s bottom line.

How do we do it? How do we create an environment where team members feel like they have choices, feel like they have control, feel like they can be self-directed?

Stop telling, start asking.

Do you know that if I tell you to vote you are less likely to do so but if I ask you if you plan to vote, you are 25% more likely to head to the polls on election day? Asking is powerful and shifting the conversation from telling to asking can have a dramatic impact on your team’s performance.  Employees who participate in decision making are more likely to fully commit to and support those decisions.  Wouldn’t you rather have everyone on your team fully supporting the goals and direction of the team?

So how does this look and feel in the real world?  Let’s see it play out:

Scenario 1 (Old School Command/Control Method)

Manager:  Pat, come into my office!  (Closes the door) The TargetMart project numbers just came back – the results are horrible!  You’re demoted to individual contributor.  If your next project results are this bad you’re fired. Got it?

Pat: Got it.  (Thinks “I’d better spend all my time and energy on finding a new job and keep my head down until I can get out.”)

Scenario 2 (Feedback Method)

Manager:  Pat, can I see you for a minute?  (Closes the door) The results are back in on the TargetMart project and the numbers weren’t what we hoped for.  It looks like you did a great job on the final deliverable but you went way over on hours that we couldn’t bill to the client.  In the future you need to do a better job of making sure the hours you put in are in line with the project estimate.

Pat: Thanks for the feedback boss! (Thinks “Too bad the guy who quoted the project didn’t have any idea how long the work would take.”)

Scenario 3 (Engagement Minded Method)

Manager:  Pat, do you have a few minutes to talk about the TargetMart project?

Pat:  Sure – can I just finish up this email and then I’ll meet you in the conference room.

Manager:  So how do you think things went?

Pat:  I’m glad you asked – it was a tough project.  I think the sales team might not have had the information they needed to build an accurate scope of work.  We ended up having to go way over on hours and I’m sure we didn’t make the money we should have.  The good news is we managed to keep the customer really happy and I have some ideas on how we could work with Sales earlier in the process to make the scope more accurate so the next project of this type goes a lot more smoothly for everyone.

In real life I’d bet that the project wouldn’t have gone off the rails at all in scenario 3 because there would have been communication earlier in the process.  But just imagine yourself as either the manager or Pat in these scenarios.  Do you feel like the engagement minded method could work in your organization?


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