3 Keys To A Bad Climate - And What You Can Do About It

I was leading a New Manager’s workshop for one of my clients and Matt brought up an issue: “I don’t understand why some of my team just seem to be going through the motions. They don’t take initiative, they don’t seem invested in what they’re doing, they don’t seem to want to be here. How do I motivate them?” That opened up the floodgates, with the majority of new managers in the room talking about the sad state of affairs of the motivation of the people that they managed. So I asked a question: “Can A Manager Motivate A Direct Report?” As they talked it through, it soon became apparent that it’s not a simple question. Motivation comes from within the individual. It’s an intrinsic force that energizes, directs and sustains our efforts. There’s no button you can push, as a manager, to turbocharge the motivation of your staff. Bummer!

To give them a more balanced perspective, I asked another question: “Have you ever been demotivated because of your manager or something that they did?”

Almost everyone in the room answered a resounding YES!

Which makes an important point. While there may not be a button to push, managers have a considerable impact on the motivational climate of the people on their team. As a matter of fact the research suggests that the practices and actions of your operational manager may be THE most important factor influencing your motivational climate.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that we managers are doing a particularly good job of it. Gallup – the same people who tell you about our elections – has been surveying organizational engagement for years. According to their latest results, 51% of workers in the U.S. are not fully engaged: 17.5 % are actively disengaged. Curt Coffman calls those actively disengaged individuals C.A.V.E. dwellers – Constantly Against Virtually Everything. The youngest workers – the Millennial’s – are the least engaged of the entire workforce with only 28.9% fully committed to and enthusiastic about the jobs.

So why is the state of motivation in our work organizations so bad? I see three key motivation derailers again and again:

Motivation Derailer #1) Managers Often Have The Wrong Mindset 

The way you – as a manager – see the people you supervise has a major impact on how you work with them. How you work with them – your behaviors – drives the results that you get from them, including their level of motivation.

I was facilitating a leadership workshop in NJ (at a company that will remain nameless) and I asked the question “How many of you agree with the statement that people basically want to do a good job”? No one in that group of thirty-five experienced managers raised their hand. I was shocked! When I asked for clarification, one person volunteered an explanation “ Joe we work with a bunch of bottom feeders here. They don’t want to be here and we have to watch them like a hawk to make sure that they do what they are supposed to do”. Yikes!

If you see the people who you supervise as being demotivated and untrustworthy, might that affect how you work with them? Absolutely! Frequently people will live down – or up – to the expectations that you have of them.

Motivation Derailer #2) Managers Are Often  So Concerned With Fixing What’s Wrong That They Miss What’s Right

You probably don’t have enough time to get everything done that you would like to as a manager. So you have to set priorities. Most managers use a form of management by exception. They focus their time and attention on the things that need fixing, the things that maybe aren’t going all that well. The things that are going well are allowed to continue on their own inertia. The problem is that people’s behaviors don’t operate according to the laws of Physics. Just because an individual is motivated and engaged at the moment doesn’t mean that they will continue to sustain that same high level of commitment. Good performance needs to be recognized or else it may regress to mediocre or poor performance. High performing team members need the right type of interaction with their managers.

Because of the preoccupation with fixing what’s wrong – rather than building on strengths – managers often overdo the corrective feedback that they provide to their associates. Most of the time they don’t even recognize it. When I ask managers what they provide more of – Corrective or Reinforcing feedback – most say Reinforcing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel that way to most employees. In a study by Carolyn Wiley published in the International Journal of Manpower the author surveyed 40 years of research and concluded that more than 80% of supervisors claim they express appreciation for what is done well. Unfortunately their direct reports didn’t see it that way. Less than 20% of them saw their managers as more than occasionally mentioning what they did well. Most people are doing a lot of good things at work. But they don’t feel that their manager recognizes their good performance. So, over time, they become less emotionally engaged and they put less of themselves into the job.

I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to this issue. I want people to succeed. I want them to get it right. So when I look at a situation, I tend to notice what’s wrong. (I’m even worse in my family relationships.) And then to be helpful (at least in my mind), I offer feedback about what they need to do differently. I do have a positive intent, but the impact of my feedback can be negative. I continually have to work at not automatically pointing out what’s wrong and instead force myself to notice and tell them what they are doing well.

Motivation Derailer #3) Managers Often Focus On The Wrong Levers To Build A Motivational Climate

It is obvious that $$, money, cash, is what motivates most employees. Right?

Not so fast!

According to much of the research, extrinsic motivators like money may not be as helpful in creating a motivational environment as you might think. Those extrinsic motivators may in fact have unintended consequences.

Disclaimer: I’m not saying that you or I don’t want more money. I know I do! I am suggesting that there are factors beyond money that may play an even bigger role in the effort that we put into our jobs. And yet mangers persist in focusing on the extrinsic factors.

Ken Kovach of George Mason University published a study that compared employees’ rankings of what they wanted in their jobs to what their manager’s thought was important to them. At the top of the employees’ rankings were the items: interesting work, followed by appreciation of work, a feeling of being “in on things”.The managers on the other hand prioritized: good wages, job security, promotion/growth, as their top three.

There are some interesting implications of the study.

  • The employees focused primarily on issues that related to intrinsic factors, like the nature of the work and feeling appreciated.
  • The things that employees rated as being most motivating weren’t front and center on the managers’ radar screen. The managers were instead looking at extrinsic factors, like pay and working conditions.
  • The things that were highest on the employees’ list are relatively easy to influence if you are a manager. And they may not cost all that much. Yet managers continually overlook them in favor of more concrete, tangible – and costly – factors.

So which levers should a manager focus on to build the most motivating climate? First, you have to take the issue of pay off the table. Pay your people a fair and equitable wage. Beyond that consider these ideas:

1) Make the Job Itself Motivating

Give your people challenging – but doable goals and tasks. Try to provide them with an opportunity to develop and use a variety of skills in the accomplishment of those goals and tasks. Make sure that they understand how their effort contributes to the organization as well as how it affects others.

2) Work to Build Their Confidence

Confidence is important to a person’s task specific motivation. If a person lacks confidence all the incentives in the world may not be enough. Work with your people to help them identify their strengths and, to the best of your ability, try to give them assignments that take advantage of those strengths.

3) Recognize Their Good Performance

Spend more of your time stoking the fire of commitment and less time pointing out problems. As Ken Blanchard wrote many years ago “Catch them doing something right”. Make a habit of paying attention to what’s working, to what people are doing well, and tell them about it. Thank them for their effort and accomplishments. At the end of each week your people should know without a doubt that you recognize their good performance.

4) Help Them To Develop

Collaborate with them to identify their personal and career aspirations. Invest your time in their development. Give them the opportunity to work on assignments that will build new skills. Provide them with support and guidance.

5) Choose To See Your People Through A Positive Lens

You can choose to see another person through a positive or negative lens. Your Mindset is a choice under your control. You can choose to think the worst of a person by imagining their actions and performance are a product of negative intentions. They don’t care, They aren’t willing to put the effort in. They just don’t have what it takes. Or, you can choose to view the person through a different lens. Their intentions are good. They want to do a good job. They have the potential to excel.  Why not see people in the more positive light? Expecting the best of an individual can create a positive self-fulfilling prophecy that pays exponential dividends.


Questions: Have you ever seen any of the derailers I mentioned? What practices have you seen used to create a motivational climate?


Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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