Salary, benefits and a great bonus are no longer enough to keep a top employee.
It is no longer enough for a manager to think that by giving an employee a salary increase every year he or she should be motivated to do a good job, despite the fact that the manager may not know their name or exactly what they do or how well they do it. It probably never was enough, but now that we know it, we can do something about it.
Getting employees to go the extra mile is one of the most difficult tasks managers face. An article written by Nitin Nohria, Boris Groysberg and Linda-Eling Lee for the July-August 2008 Harvard Business Review, Employee Motivation, a Powerful New Model, had this to say: “Some of history’s most influential thinkers about human behaviour – among them Aristotle, Adam Smith, Sigmund Freud and Abraham Maslow – have struggled to understand its nuances and have taught us a tremendous amount about why people do the things they do.”
These researchers found four main drives that motivated:
Drive to acquire: We all want to have nice things, not just material things, but also social status, promotion, getting the corner office. This drive tends to be relative, as we always compare with others, and is almost always insatiable, as people always want more. This is why we always want to know what our colleagues earn.
Drive to bond: Humans bond with their immediate family, extended family or tribe, and even organisations, sports teams and nations. When an employee feels part of a work “family”, this is a valuable motivator. Alternatively, if an employee feels isolated at work, they feel betrayed and their work will suffer.
Drive to comprehend: It is human nature to want to understand the world around us, on a larger scale and a smaller scale – at work. If our work seems meaningless and an employee does not see how it adds value, this is a demotivator. Employees want to see that their work makes a meaningful contribution, and they want to understand how it happens. More talented employees who see their work as meaningless often move to more challenging jobs.
Drive to defend: This is the basic fight or flight instinct which is rooted in all of us. We will all defend ourselves, our families, our property and what we have achieved. It causes humans to want to create and work for institutions that promote justice, that have clear goals and intentions, and that allow people to express their ideas and opinions. Fulfilling this need leads to feelings of security and confidence, while not fulfilling it produces strong negative emotions such as fear, resentment and, ultimately, anger.
Organisational levers of motivation
To meet each of these drives, the researchers suggest that each drive be met by a distinct organisational lever of motivation.
Reward system. The drive to acquire is met by a company’s reward system. Employees want to know that good performance will be rewarded and given opportunities for advancement.
Culture. Creating a sense of camaraderie and belonging among employees means creating a culture that promotes teamwork, collaboration, openness and friendship.
Job design. The drive to comprehend is best addressed by designing jobs that are meaningful, interesting and challenging. A good example of this is Cirque du Soleil. Despite gruelling rehearsal and performance schedules, it attracts and retains performers by accommodating their creativity by pushing them to perfect their craft. Performers get to design their own performances, and they get to say who they want to be taught by in the future. This is an extremely successful circus act.
Performance management and resource allocation processes. Fair, transparent and trustworthy processes for performance management and resource allocation go a long way to meeting people’s drive to defend.
It has therefore become clear to company leaders that money alone does not motivate people to work harder, nor does it retain talented employees.
Light hearted approach
A light hearted but very meaningful research carried out by Jessica Gross asked, “What motivates us at work, more than money?” Her research led to her conclusion, as with the above study, that there is a lot more at play than simple remuneration. We are also driven by the meaningfulness of our work, both others’ acknowledgement – and by the amount of effort we’ve put in: the harder the task, the prouder we are. Some of the questions asked of employees in Ariely’s research, which was included in Gross’s thesis include the following:
Seeing the fruits of our labour may make us more productive
The study being “In Man’s search for meaning: The case of Legos”, Ariely asked participants to build characters from Lego’s Bionicles series. In both conditions, participants were paid decreasing amounts for each subsequent Bionicle: $3 for the first one, $2.70 for the next one, and so on. But while one group’s creations were stored under the table, to be disassembled at the end of the experiment, the other group’s Bionicles were disassembled as soon as they’d been built. “This was an endless cycle of them building and us destroying in front of their eyes,” Ariely says.
Results: the first group made 11 Bionicles, on average, while the second group made only seven before they quit.
Upshot: Even though there wasn’t huge meaning at stake, and even though the first group knew their work would be destroyed at the end of the experiment, seeing the results of their labour for even a short time was enough to dramatically improve performance.
The harder a project is, the prouder we feel of it
In another study, Ariely gave origami novices paper and instructions to build a pretty ugly form. Those who did the origami project, as well as bystanders, were asked at the end how much they’d pay for the product. In a second trial, Ariely hid the instructions from some participants, resulting in a harder process – and an uglier product.
Results: In the first experiment, the builders paid five times as much as those who just evaluated the product. In the second experiment, the lack of instructions exaggerated this difference: builders valued the ugly-but-difficult products even more highly than the easier, prettier ones, while observers valued them even less.
Upshot: Our valuation of our own work is directly tied to the effort we’ve expended. (Plus, we erroneously think that other people will ascribe the same value to our own work as we do.)
Knowing that our work helps others may increase our unconscious motivation
As described in a recent New York Times Magazine profile, psychologist Adam Grant led a study at a University of Michigan fundraising call centre in which students who had benefited from the centre’s scholarship fundraising efforts spoke to the callers for 10 minutes.
Results: A month later, the callers were spending 142 percent more time on the phone than before, and revenues had increased by 171 percent, according to the Times. But the callers denied the scholarship students’ visit had impacted them.
Upshot: It was almost as if the good feelings had bypassed the callers’ conscious cognitive processes and gone straight to a more subconscious source of motivation, the Times reports. They were more driven to succeed, even if they could not pinpoint the trigger for that drive.
The promise of helping others makes us more likely to follow rules
Grant ran another study in which he put up signs at a hospital’s hand-washing stations, reading either “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases” or “Hand hygiene prevents patients from catching diseases.”
Results: Doctors and nurses used 45 percent more soap or hand sanitizer in the stations with signs that mentioned patients.
Upshot: Helping others through what’s called “prosocial behavior” motivates us.
Positive reinforcement about our abilities may increase performance
Undergraduates at Harvard University gave speeches and did mock interviews with experimenters who were either nodding and smiling or shaking their heads, furrowing their eyebrows and crossing their arms.
Results: The participants in the first group later answered a series of numerical questions more accurately than those in the second group.
Upshot: Stressful situations can be manageable – it all depends on how we feel. We find ourselves in a “challenge state” when we think we can handle the task (as the first group did); when we’re in a “threat state,” on the other hand, the difficulty of the task is overwhelming, and we become discouraged. We’re more motivated and perform better in a challenge state, when we have confidence in our abilities.
Images that trigger positive emotions may actually help us focus
Researchers at Hiroshima University had university students perform a dexterity task before and after looking at pictures of either baby or adult animals.
Results: Performance improved in both cases, but more so (10 percent improvement!) when participants looked at cute pictures of puppies and kittens.
Upshot: The researchers suggest that the “cuteness-triggered positive emotion” helps us narrow our focus, upping our performance on a task that requires close attention. Yes, this study may just validate your baby panda obsession.
The less appreciated we feel our work is, the more money we want to do it
Ariely gave study participants – students at MIT – a piece of paper filled with random letters, and asked them to find pairs of identical letters. Each round, they were offered less money than the previous round. People in the first group wrote their names on their sheets and handed them to the experimenter, who looked it over and said, “Uh huh,” before putting it in a pile. People in the second group didn’t write down their names, and the experimenter put their sheets in a pile without looking at them. People in the third group had their work shredded immediately upon completion.
Results: People whose work was shredded needed twice as much money as those whose work was acknowledged in order to keep doing the task. People in the second group, whose work was saved but ignored, needed almost as much money as those whose work was shredded.
Upshot: “Ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort before their eyes,” Ariely says. “The good news is that adding motivation doesn’t seem to be so difficult. The bad news is that eliminating motivation seems to be incredibly easy, and if we don’t think about it carefully, we might overdo it.”
The trend seems to be ratified by yet another finding, but at a slightly different angle.
An article that appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition, titled “Company brand, not salary, key to keeping top talent in Asia” concluded that senior executives in Asia require more than money to motivate them to stay with their current companies.
The survey involved 234 chief executives and human resources directors in the consumer goods, retail, apparel, hospitality and media sectors in 10 Asian countries.
Nearly 60 per cent of chief executives and senior executives were considering other employment options, while 28 per cent planned to leave their current jobs within two years if a better opportunity arose, according to this study, released by executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles.
Unexpectedly, respondents to their survey said that when considering the next job, compensation was the least important factor, the report said.
“Gone are the days when more money meant more staff motivation. Today’s candidates also value intangible job benefits that make their work rewarding,” says Karen Fifer, a global managing partner of consumer markets practice at Heidrick & Struggles and the author of the study.
Employment considerations that mattered more than remuneration included credible and inspiring leadership teams with a global outlook and experience across diverse business areas, the health of the company and its reputation, the level of innovation and commitment to driving social sustainability, and even the chief executive’s personal brand.
To retain talent in a fluid job market, Fifer said, companies should have a more active employer branding strategy. “Top talent brings top results. Just as the customer experience is at the epicentre of every retailer’s and consumer-facing company’s strategy, ’employee experience’ should be at the heart of every company’s employer brand,” she said.
While 95 percent of respondents acknowledged the importance of employer brand, only 54 percent had such a strategy in place. The proliferation of social media platforms has made corporate behaviour highly visible, meaning an employer’s brand is not just what a company says about itself but what people “out there” are saying. To win the talent war, companies need to rethink and enhance their employment strategies and ensure that what is appealing about their brand and employment practices is externally visible.
And so it appears that human resource executives and company boards have a lot to think about when it comes to motivating – and retaining – their employees. Many companies and smart executives are already getting it right. If you, as an HR executive are concerned about your company’s motivation levels, have a look at their incentive systems and what they offer their employees aside from money.
Dr Mark Bussin is the Executive Chairperson at 21st Century Pay Solutions Group, www.21century.co.za, a Professor at University of Johannesburg, Professor Extraordinaire at North West University, Chairperson and member of various boards and remuneration committees, immediate past President and EXCO member of South African Reward Association, and a former Commissioner in the Office of the Presidency.
This article appeared in the August 2015 issue of HR Future magazine.