The Biggest Motivation-Killer

Is the single biggest destroyer of employee motivation plaguing your workplace? Find out.

Many business people use a single word to describe the combined symptoms of employee lack of motivation, apathy, resistance to change, resentment and mistrust: cynicism. That word pretty much says it all.

The question that always intrigues me is, Were the employees cynical before they were hired? We begin to understand where employee cynicism comes from when we look at the primary motivator for the owners and supervisors within an organization.

Working to Help Who?
People are volunteering more now than ever. The volunteerism phenomenon can seem puzzling; why do so many people choose to invest their time and energy in activities that are often unpleasant or even dangerous, usually for little or no pay? The short answer, of course, is that people volunteer to support a cause they believe in. This is an important insight for any business hindered by an unenthusiastic workforce.

For decades, businesses have stubbornly clung to the belief that "incentives" are the biggest employee motivators. The philosophy behind incentives is based on the almost universal conviction that lurking forever in the back of every employee's mind is one big question: What's in it for me? Incentives are management's attempt to answer that unspoken question.

And yet, of the countless highly motivated workers I've interviewed over the years, not one has ever attributed his or her enthusiasm to a management incentive. One thing I've learned through my decades of research and field experience is that if there really is an unspoken question at the back of most employees' minds, it's closer to: Why should I care? Most businesses have failed to give their employees a cause to care about, to believe in and to get behind.

Simply put, working hard day after day to make the owners of the company rich isn't a "cause" most employees are likely to get fired up about. Any organization driven by a predominantly internal focus on profits or self-interest becomes, by definition, a perfect breeding ground for employee cynicism. Relying on incentives to boost sagging morale can actually make things worse by further reinforcing the culture of self-interest, awakening in employees a realization that there actually is more "in it for them" in terms of money and prizes, if they play their cards right.

The Flashpoint Culture
Despite other differences, high-performance businesses all share one striking cultural characteristic: Their predominant collective focus is not internal, on profit or organizational self-interest. In these organizations the predominant focus is external, on filling customers' needs or on improving customers' lives in some way.

This shift in cultural focus changes everything. It's one of the main reasons employees in these businesses become, and remain, highly motivated. They find it deeply rewarding to see their efforts appreciated by people they've helped. It gives meaning to work activities that can otherwise feel boring, repetitious and pointless. This is in contrast to "play activities" (addressed in the first part of this series), which typically feel challenging, enjoyable and satisfying.

The irony is that businesses in which workers routinely experi�ence a kind of highly motivational euphoria almost always enjoy higher profits than their more profit-focused competitors. So intense is their shared determination to help and please customers, these businesses often adopt what may seem like a "not for profit" approach. The "wow factor" extras, the discounts and the freebies keep piling up, until it can almost appear the operation is doomed to lose money in the long run.

It's easy to overlook how dramatically this approach lowers many of the basic costs of running a business. For example, the huge marketing costs associated with replacing defecting customers, and the substantial turnover costs associated with replacing unhappy employees are drastically reduced in operations with high customer and employee loyalty.

I refer to energized, outwardly focused businesses as having a flashpoint culture. Spontaneous positive feedback from appreciative customers increases employee motivation, inspiring the workers to strive even harder to keep customers happy and coming back. This further improves customer satisfaction, prompting even more positive feedback. It becomes a virtual chain reaction--a flashpoint of contagious enthusiasm.

Putting the Motive Back into Motivation
It may seem peculiar to focus on customer satisfaction in a discussion of employee motivation. Yet these businesses continually look for new ways to delight customers because they know this is also the best way to keep everybody energized.

Many businesses famous for exemplary customer service put their workers through no customer service training whatsoever. The motive to do whatever it takes to deliver a superior customer experience is already in place across the board. In flashpoint cultures, special training to improve customer service isn't needed.

How would a business get the shift to a flashpoint culture started within its own organizational setting? A culture shift is surprisingly easy to set in motion and bring about, as we'll explore in the third part of this series.

Author and consultant Paul Levesque has spent many years interviewing management and staff in all kinds of high-performance businesses all over the world. In the second of a three-part series based on his new bookMotivation, Levesque reveals the single biggest destroyer of employee motivation in the workplace.

Part One: Creating a Turbo-Charged Work Force

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