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What is driving an employee?

Photo by Jessica Pontillo on Unsplash

What is driving an employee?

As a manager, will you truly commit to make employees more involved?

This is a common issue: a lot of things are going not so well in the company and when the managers try to understand why, they find out that most people are not that motivated.

Yet the managers don’t really understand why the company’s employees are not motivated. Or they get to understand why, kind of — it is a matter of asking, after all — but that does not make clear what should be done to remedy it.

Here is my take on the topic:

“If all I am given is my paycheck, then all you’ll get back from me is my time”

… Don’t expect from me to be involved, dedicated or passionate.

We could put it another way:

Are your people working so that they can enjoy some vacations, or are they working because they truly enjoy their work?

Whatever the compensation level, people are rarely truly motivated by the compensation itself.

How do you give more than money and vacations for their work?

Here is a list of suggestions, ranked from least to most powerful:

  • Awesome colleagues
  • High-level of quality
  • Freedom
  • Meaning
  • Power over their own life

Awesome colleagues: just enjoying being there

Photo by Jessica Pontillo on Unsplash

Working in a great team with awesome colleagues is a major driver of happiness.

So while it’s really important, it’s not always what will make employees truly involved in the company. On the contrary, they’ll get involved with their teams and colleagues.

This is more a prerequisite than a cause of employee motivation. It is impossible to be motivated if you can’t get along with your colleagues. Yet you can be truly enjoying working with your colleagues while at the same time not really caring for the company.

High-level of quality: feeling good for doing a good job

This will particularly resonate with engineers who usually hate doing a half-assed job but in a broader sense it applies to everyone.

Not finishing things, or delivering something we are not proud of, are a sure way to kill motivation.

On the other hand, people get a deep feeling of fulfillment when they truly complete something, the way it should be.

However, like having awesome colleagues, this is more of a prerequisite than a cause of employee motivation. People can get motivated by their job, by doing their job well, but not so much by the company. They do their best to do a good job but they don’t really care for the company. What is sure, though, is that not being given the means to do a good job is a motivation killer.

Photo by Jessica Pontillo on Unsplash

Please note that this motivator can have nasty effects. This motivator could somehow conflict with iterative and incremental development and the likes: Lean Startup and validated learnings, and more broadly building the most value for the least effort. The key here is not to rely on this motivator only. Indeed if your only pleasure at work is to completely polish something, it will be hard to find pleasure in other ways than over-engineering. Again, you can’t get along without this motivator but this is just a prerequisite, it is not enough.

Freedom: choosing how work is getting done

Freedom is a core motivator of most if not all people. It takes many form: autonomy, self-organization, having more responsibilities. We can also talk about empowerment which is usually tied to the level of autonomy given to the employee.

Photo by Jessica Pontillo on Unsplash

A very powerful way to give freedom is by actually making clear the boundaries of this freedom. This is often called the sandbox.

Saying out loud what is under the employee’s power and what is not actually have a liberating effect.

With the help of this sandbox, employees can now embrace the given freedom instead of wondering if they have the power on this or that.

Is giving freedom to the employees enough to get them truly involved in the company? Not quite. We are again talking about a prerequisite: without freedom you’ll get drones, by no means involved in the company. Yet empowered individuals might simply end up happy of their job, but not truly invested in the company.

Meaning: having a purpose

This is the core motivator that will drive people to be involved in the company and not simply in doing their job or to be part of their team: the company has a true purpose, giving a deep meaning to its employee’s jobs.

Let’s dig a little deeper: what does that mean exactly? The company must be on a mission, but not any mission — the mission must be real, something that impacts the world, something positive: just making money won’t do it as a mission statement. More precisely: it must be a mission that fits the employee’s own goals.

For some companies or organizations this is rather easy. For instance the employee works for an NGO and is already convinced of the purpose behind it.

Photo by Jessica Pontillo on Unsplash

For other companies it can be rather tricky… Because no matter how the issue is viewed, then the core culture of the company is to simply put more money in the shareholders’ pockets. But not everything is lost, even in this case!

Indeed the key of this motivator is to have people supporting the mission of the company. You can provide a truly powerful meaning, or you can build it together with employees.

By definition and if done well, employees will have to support the mission of the company if they are involved in its inception.

Which leads us to the following motivators…

Power over their own life: be actors of the company

It could be summed up this way:

If you want people to be involved in their work, then involve them in the company.

We talked about freedom and we talked about meaning. We also have talked about managers and employees…

In the end you have to mix it all together. Your company needs to have a purpose and this purpose must be shared with everyone at the company’s. The organizational model must be shared. Anyone must be able to challenge anything in the company and to suggest better ways.

Photo by Jessica Pontillo on Unsplash

In short: managers have to share their traditional role.

I’m not saying there is no place for managers in companies. But definitely the role of the manager is not to organize the work for others or to set goals anymore. People need and must choose themselves how they work, to find the best way to work to meet a greater goal.

The manager role is thus to enable and foster this behavior. They facilitate the organization as a whole, without organizing themselves.

How much are you willing to commit?

I have to warn you, though. There is a common pattern with all these suggestions:

The more powerful the approach, the bigger the commitment from the management team.

Let’s have a look:

  • Awesome colleagues: as a manager it is a matter of mixing and matching the good people in each teams. Management commitment level: low.
  • High-level of quality: as a manager you have to let enough time for the work not to be rushed. Depending on your context, it can be easy or moderately hard. However, it will pay off on the longer term to have a good level of quality so that should not be a problem. Management commitment level: moderate.
  • Freedom: giving freedom might be hard but creating the sandbox by making clear the boundaries of the freedom should not. Often it is not that easy because managers haven’t experienced this way of doing themselves, and they see it as unnecessary. It might require some learning or personal enlightenment. Management commitment level: significant.
  • Meaning: creating meaning at the level of the company and conveying it successfully to each and every employee is hard if the company does not already have a purposeful culture. Yes, culture, that’s the word: something that takes a lot of time and effort to build. Especially that is not only about employees — it is about everyone at the company’s. Management commitment level: major.
  • Power over their own life: embracing this way of working can break pretty much anything in the company. The manager role is not the same at all. This cannot be faked or done reluctantly. Management commitment level: huge.

Will you commit enough?

You can feel all the problems caused by employees not involved enough in the company. But are you willing to commit enough to make things truly change?

Photo by Jessica Pontillo on Unsplash

In the end, it is up to you. But don’t wonder too far on this path unless you commit to do it in full.

Doing only part of it can have a much more negative effect than doing nothing at all.

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