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Partnering with Employees to Uncover Motivation

Posted 21st May 2019

Some of us feel that we are in control of our environment, of our job and of the tasks within our jobs, whilst others feel that we are controlled by our job. Those not feeling in control may feel powerless which can lead to acquiescence rather than a desire to change their environment.

Nowadays the ideal employee is expected to be action-oriented, upbeat, confident and autonomous. However, the reality is often different, so many managers and CEOs are trying to find ways to transform helpless staff into empowered employees.

Perceived control

The perception of “lacking control” comes from our interpretation of the cues we select from our work environment. For example, a disillusioned employee will notice that co-workers make decisions without consulting her or him and this will corroborate his or her sense of powerlessness. However, the same employee will underestimate a colleague asking for advice, by interpreting this sign of trust as an act of desperation.

In order to change a belief that underpins a defeatist attitude, the manager can point it out and ‘negotiate’ with an employee to change it. This is akin to a “parenting approach”. This approach can generate frustration and more helplessness as the manager positions herself/himself as “the one who knows” and able to solve the problem.

Instead, a “partnering approach” can be used, in which the manager simply asks; “What is most important for you in this situation?” or “In an ideal world, what would your job look like?” In his TEDx talk, Brady Wilson underlines five main reasons for motivation:

  1. Significance (becoming a high performer)
  2. Meaning (working towards a higher purpose)
  3. Belonging (becoming a valued team member)
  4. Freedom (taking risks and making important decisions)
  5. Security (seeing consistency in structures, systems and rules)

A manager’s motivation can differ from his or her collocutor; hence, there is a need to refrain from an automatic evaluative judgement. Using an open question keeps the manager’s opinion out of the conversation and allows the employee to feel less vulnerable to the judgment of this significant other. A shy colleague should then be more likely to open up about what stimulates her or him. Once a manager or colleague’s personal opinion is pushed away, true listening can begin. As M. Scott Peck said, “True listening requires a setting aside of oneself”. The empathy of the listener sends the message that the talker is worthy of attention and connection.

Expression of value

Most demotivated employees believe that they have very little control as to what happens to them (called an external locus of control). However, helping rebuild self-esteem could be the first step towards helping an employee regaining control. Defining the employee’s value by aligning it to motivational aims not only challenges the employee’s assumption “(I’m worthless”) but also allows the discovery of alternative perspectives (“X and Y value this skill of yours”) and the opportunity to explore further implications (“This idea of yours could be implemented throughout the company”).

Here are some examples of questions that can be used to uncover the value of each employee (in their own eyes) which can align value and motivation.

  1. Significance (“Describe a time where you helped fixing a problem”, “Identify the skillset needed”)

  2. Meaning (“What do you do that nobody does?”, “Who does that help?”)

  3. Belonging (“Identify the common points between you and other team members”)

  4. Freedom (“Choose a challenge you want to see through”, “Identify the very next steps for its implementation”)

  5. Security (“Can you think of a routine which will make your job more efficient? Will that benefit someone else?)

This conversation (which is close to Socrates maieutics) is intended to show the employee’s perceived lack of control as a changeable trait. An exchange where both the employee and the manager can foresee an opportunity is likely to release “happy” neurotransmitters such as dopamine (motivation), serotonin (satisfaction) and oxytocin (trust) that will induce a feeling of achievement. Positive conversations that produce a “good feeling” explains why employees feel loyalty to companies that practice such employee development.

Leo Widrich, the co-founder of the start-up Buffer, believes in “building emotional resilience” by adapting the game of Peekaboo in order to restablish connection and trust with a demotivated co-worker. In the original version of the game, the baby learns that the experience of deep connection (eye contact, smile, open face) can disappear for a while but that loss doesn’t cause distress as the baby knows that, eventually the smiley face comes back. For the disconnected employee, the connection to the rest of the workforce has disappeared and it feels permanent.  A meaningful conversation where both parties recognize the value of their alliance helps to restore the lost bond and trust can be rebuilt. Leo Widdrich highlights the importance of building an emotional support network at work, which will “allow yourself to be supported by others”.

Companies, especially small companies, benefit from employees feeling empowered and trusted. Emotional support will motivate them to take initiative to change an unacceptable situation as they trust themselves to be capable. These are the first steps towards accountability (and a growth mindset) that often leads to a creative outlook – but a safe environment where value is recognised is required. Encouraging employees to be aware of their self-worth is good for individuals which will feed into company success.

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