From Negativity to Productivity: The Power of Motivation

From Negativity to Productivity: The Power of Motivation

Disengagement and cynicism are widespread in today's post-recession business world. Many organizations that were forced to reduce their work forces and cut pay and benefits now are confronted with the negative legacy of those difficult actions. Employee motivation – or lack thereof – plays a big role in that legacy.

Current Gallup polls show that more 70 percent of American workers report feeling either not engaged or actively disengaged in their jobs – meaning they no longer have the necessary motivation for performance excellence, whether they have remained in their current organizations throughout the economic downturn or were laid off or left to seek better opportunity.

Watching colleagues get laid off, seeing compensation cut and worrying about one's own job has adversely affected many even formerly enthusiastic employees, reducing emotional connection and trust and creating a stressful work environment. But conflict between workplace negativity and the performance needs of employers does not have to be a given. Reducing work forces under economic pressure has been hard, but it also created an opportunity to retain team members who are both skilled at and essential to their jobs.

Employers cannot mandate motivation with mission statements. True motivation comes from understanding and satisfying employees' workplace needs and creating a passion for excellence among people who want their organization to succeed because they feel connected emotionally to it. With proper motivation and guidance, and by assigning team members jobs they are passionate about, you can enhance the performance dynamic in your workplace.

Motivation and Trust

Trust is the foundation for such motivation. Employers can build trust in their workplace relationships through open communication, collaboration and prioritizing the needs of all workers in the organization. Such a process requires a combination of tools, such as employee surveys and behavioral assessments, that provide objective insights about the diverse styles and expectations of the organization's team members.

Assessment testing defines a person's underlying needs and motivations, showing what drives his or her behavior and how best to establish and grow an emotional workplace connection. Without this information, few people truly achieve passion for their jobs. Responding to a personality assessment gives individuals a frame of reference to assess interests, job needs, work style and career satisfaction.

Testing identifies whether people work better alone or on a team, whether they prefer a structured or flexible work environment, whether they take initiative or need guidance and whether they think in terms of details or the big picture. Each person has unique strengths, weaknesses, productive behaviors and stress behaviors. Personality testing identifies and brings those characteristics into focus, helping employees understand how to pursue career paths that better integrate their core capabilities into a workplace team.

Motivation and Communication

The team dynamic is important because it reflects what many organizations learned during the recession. Reconfiguring and reducing work forces has created the opportunity to retain team members who are both skilled at and committed to their jobs. Such enthusiasm means that properly motivated employees can better handle and embrace the extra work created by downsizing. Even though fewer people are doing the work, if they are now performing a function that fits perfectly with their core abilities and passion, higher pay likely will not be a primary motivator.

Testing and assessment can facilitate assigning team members to jobs that they are good at and passionate about, creating the core dynamic of engagement and optimizing motivation and performance. When supervisors use effective assessment tools to understand what motivates the people they supervise, they can better structure team assignments that help employees remain engaged. Objective measurements like this give employees and supervisors a common language to improve trust and collaboration.

Communication is inseparable from motivation, and messages that motivate a manufacturing team may be very different from what motivates a team of accountants or sales specialists. Through personality assessment, companies can identify which people have the natural or potential leadership style required in specific operations.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, either by functional unit or by leadership style. Leaders can't master all leadership styles and seem authentic; they must be true to their own personal styles. Thus the testing focus must be on identifying the styles that best fit in each area. Assessments can accelerate development by pointing up strengths and weaknesses and helping individuals broaden their portfolio of leadership skills that are matched to the needs of each functional area.

Clear expectations also are essential to communication and trust. These expectations must be two-way. Instead of simply telling employees what is expected of them, employers should initiate a dialogue about how employees see their roles in a particular project, how they would help improve a team or what they would suggest to meet a difficult commitment to a customer. With such dialogue, a manager's behavior must be authentic in order to engage trust. If a manager emphasizes that diligence and detailed planning are essential to getting the job done, but in reality operates using whim and indecision, no one will be fooled. The dichotomy between words and actions will erode trust in the manager – and the organization.

Motivation Case Study

An excellent real-world example illustrates how this dynamic works. While output at a 500-person manufacturing plant steadily increased, a number of barriers prevented the company from achieving optimal growth potential. They had a high production employee turnover rate in operations where management had identified problems with low morale and poor employee-supervisor communication. The company decided to analyze the facility's work force and working environment through the use of focus groups, human resource interviews and personality testing, which was administered by an outside consultant.

Testing results demonstrated that the most dissatisfied individuals in production jobs felt that company management was not listening to them. The desire to perform and be productive was not an issue – those tested scored high on competitiveness measurements, and workers wanted to be measured so they could demonstrate their capabilities.

Even so, improved communication was essential for all workers in the plant to understand what management was doing and why. Senior company managers worked with plant supervisors to develop productivity improvement strategies that involved creating quality competition between departments, setting individual productivity goals and holding regular meetings with plant personnel. At these meetings, they shared the results of the various competitive programs, solicited feedback and conveyed plans for future actions.

As a result of these initiatives, turnover declined and productivity improved dramatically.

Lessons in Motivation

Employees care about more than promotions and pay. They want to be respected and treated as individuals with unique needs and desires. Workers are motivated when they are engaged with their jobs, their co-workers and managers. Showing team members how their work fits into the big picture helps them see their own roles and importance.

But employers cannot assume that managers recognize what they should do and how they might fall short. A consistent effort is necessary to help build the kind of supervisory skills that enable managers to communicate with and build trust among employees. That's the key to motivation and a stress-free workplace – a win-win for employee and employer.

Sharon Birkman Fink is president and CEO of Birkman International Inc. and developer of The Birkman Method leadership and team development tool, which reveals the underlying motivators that drive behavior. She can be reached at 713-623-2760 or sfink@birkman.com.

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