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Motivation Up, Attrition Down - Wharton / HBR

The success of your business depends on many factors, but arguably none matters more than the talent and performance of your workforce. That’s because, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, employees have a profound effect on those other factors (think customer satisfaction, company reputation, and overall stakeholder value), both positively or negatively, depending on their level of commitment and connection to your organization.

A renewed focus on engagement — which can significantly affect employee retention, productivity, and loyalty — is especially important in a tight labor market, in which you are competing for talent with rival organizations and the cost associated with onboarding new employees is at an all-time high.

Action Steps

  1. Assess key drivers of engagement: Data from the General Social Survey (an annual project of the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center) suggests that job satisfaction is derived primarily from four factors: learning opportunities and variety, relationships with managers and coworkers, low stress, and extrinsic benefits (including pay and bonuses). Consider how well your organization meets these key drivers and which ones need improving.

  2. Increase task engagement: Offer work that is sufficiently challenging (uses a variety of skills); provide opportunities to learn new skills through stretch assignments and work on projects; and balance work demands including size of workload, emotional demands, and work/life conflicts to avoid burnout.

  3. Create engagement through meaning: Help employees understand how their particular roles contribute to the organization’s overall mission; provide opportunities for secondments to nonprofits and allow them to engage in other corporate social responsibility activities.

  4. Create opportunities for accomplishment: Accomplishment is a powerful predictor of job satisfaction. Provide both the means to track progress on tasks and goals (consider using self-monitoring tools such as project-management and productivity-tracking software) and autonomy, which may involve allowing their input into the task, ongoing coaching, and clarity in setting expectations.

  5. Manage your managers: Leaders who support and encourage the engagement of others recognize that work relationships must be balanced, with equal or near-equal contributions from each party and clearly communicated expectations on both sides about each party’s responsibilities.

  6. Offer and enforce procedural justice: Processes must clearly maintain equity and respect for each worker by being consistent and transparent, and by allowing decisions perceived as unfair to be appealed, with affected parties present.

To read the complete article from the Wharton Business School, please click here.


On the same topic, do not hesitate to have a look at the below article from the Harvard Business Review :

Learning what motivates other people is not as straightforward as directly asking someone, “What motivates you?” Most of us struggle to articulate our actual motives and may not be fully conscious of them.

A better approach involves asking 3 powerful questions focused on the past, the present, and the future.

Those questions can help you uncover how your team members relate to their work and what lies at the root of their ambitions.

1) Look backward: What have you accomplished?

The first question is, “What have you accomplished in the last four to six months that makes you most proud?” and the second question is, “What about that work makes you proud?”

The first answer gives insight into the kind of work team members like to do and the second tells what about that work makes them feel motivated. When you ask these questions to your own team, the key is to listen for hints of intrinsic motivation — or the incentive we feel to complete a task just because we find it engaging or enjoyable. For example, if your team member answers the first question and says they’re proud of writing a viral social media post simply because they really love that kind of work, they were likely intrinsically motivated by it. Now, your job is to find out why.

There are a few components that drive intrinsic motivation: competence, autonomy, and connectedness, according to the theory of self-determination (SDT). Let’s take a closer look at each:

Competence: If your team member says they find social media writing rewarding because it comes naturally to them and they find it validating when other people share their content, they may be motivated by work that makes them feel competent. SDT postulates that the satisfaction we feel when we overcome a challenge and perform well makes us feel more competent, which then leads us to feel intrinsically motivated.

Autonomy: If your team member is proud because they wrote the post in their own way without the guidance of anyone else, they likely value and are driven by the feeling autonomy. In fact, psychologists have found that competency and autonomy often play off of each other.

Connectedness: If your team member is proud because they collaborated well with others to write the post and saw it resonate widely, they may be motivated by connectedness. This means the task itself wasn’t as motivating as being part of a group that accomplished it together, providing a sense of belonging.

Finally, you may hear about what accomplishing the task meant to your team member. Though this isn’t included in SDT, many of us are motivated by work that is meaningful and has a purpose.

As you listen to the answers, make note of what made your team member proud (competency, autonomy, connectedness, and/or purpose). Start to think about what responsibilities align best with those sources of motivation. For instance, if your team member described how they worked as part of a team (connectedness) to solve an important problem (purpose), you might think about other projects you could assign them to feed these internal drives.

2) Look at today: What is getting in the way?

The second question can help surface demotivators, or things that are frustrating your team and sapping their motivation. A big part of your job as a leader is to remove the barriers blocking their potential. Beyond that, this question will give your people an opportunity to feel heard and appreciated.

Some leaders are afraid to ask about barriers for fear of surfacing things they can’t change (hard deadlines or limited resources). Others worry that the conversation will devolve into a complaining session. To move past these fears, remind yourself that not every roadblock can or needs to be solved — listening and caring can be enough. Showing empathy and being open to looking for ways to compensate or work around a roadblock can go a long way and even help unblock your team member for the time being.

When your team member shares their frustrations, ask, “What do you think we can do about that?” (Depending on the issue, you might substitute “we” with “your” or “I.”) If the issue is truly unsolvable, discuss how your team member can still be effective given the constraint. Even if the solution isn’t obvious, you’re still building a foundation of trust, connecting, and surfacing a frustrating problem. You’ll gain information that can help you prevent similar barriers in the future.

3) Look forward: What would you like to do more of?

The final question opens the door to what your team member would like more of going forward. There may be things they want but have never communicated to you — either because they couldn’t find the right time or felt they needed permission to ask.

One team member may want to learn a new skill while another wants to tackle a challenging project. One team member may want to participate in a mentoring program while another wants to gain experience in a different department.

As a leader, you don’t have to fulfill every request, but asking the question will help you figure out how to make their jobs more interesting and motivating. It will create some room for “job crafting,” which involves making small changes to better fit the role to the individual.

How and When Should You Ask These Questions?

Each above question has the potential to yield powerful insights, but you need to be conscious of when and how you hold the conversation to see them.

Here are a few tips:

Time it right.

While these questions might feel like a natural fit for your annual performance evaluations, ask them sooner. The end of the year is not the time to make amends for lost motivation. Motivating your team and keeping their morale high is part of your daily job. Ask these questions during regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings and make them the entire focus. This will give you the space you need to have a meaningful conversation and start making changes sooner than later.

Give your team member a heads up.

Don’t ask your team member these questions on the spot. To get the most thoughtful answers, they’ll likely need some time to reflect and prepare. Consider sending the questions via email in advance of your meeting. You might say, “In preparation of our meeting this week, I wanted you to ponder on three questions. Not only will these help you reflect on your work and your future goals, but your responses will also help me plan for your growth and development.”

Don’t make it a one-time thing.

You should be having this conversation about every six to 12 months. It’s a good way to check in with your people on something besides what they are working on right now. You can also use each subsequent meeting to get feedback on any changes that have come about since your last discussion. Be sure to listen actively, take notes, and repeat back any major points your team member makes to show that you’re paying attention.


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