The most famous motivational poster of all time is arguably the one picturing a kitten hanging from a branch, emblazoned with the chirpy slogan, “Hang in there!” There’s a chance that when it first came out in the 1970s, some people found it motivating and charming. “If that cat can hang in there, then I can, too, even with all the gas shortages and Watergates,” is what some people surely thought. Of course, much like era-coincident fashion, that poster has become a bit of a modern punchline, now being used only for irony’s sake. Anyone who isn’t currently hanging from a branch would just find it kitschy. It’s lost its meaning entirely.
That’s the problem with a lot of motivational techniques. Unless they are backed up by something real, they can seem hollow, or even insulting, leaving employees feeling even less motivated. I once conducted a study of employee motivation in a large retail chain store. This company thought they had it down. They hung motivational posters on the walls of the break room and every morning they had the employees do a motivational cheer that was intended to put them in a positive mindset for the day. The management of that store truly believed those efforts were helping. We, as readers, recognize it as being pretty cringe-worthy.
The problem is, the management at this store didn’t ask the employees if those efforts made them feel motivated. If they had, they would have found that most of the employees thought the motivational posters were meaningless platitudes and considered the company cheer not positive, but embarrassing. The store’s efforts to force enthusiasm for their brand were coming off as patronizing at best, and, as one employee put it, “a full-on cult mentality” at worst.
You can’t force a mindset with little exercises, but you can cultivate one through conscious management. People are going to feel the way they want to feel. When you demand they be enthusiastic, it’s human nature to be the opposite. Employers who want to really motivate their employees don’t need to force a company-wide mindset, but can instead motivate them at an individual level. This creates a positive culture that spreads through the entire organization.
Make It, Don’t Fake It
What does it mean for an employee to be truly happy, and to care about their work? Getting them to that point is the goal of any motivational technique. There are many ways to successfully increase engagement and motivation, and to create a workplace where people arrive every day feeling happy to do their jobs. Interestingly, one of the more common techniques is one that can backfire the most.
For a long time, many workers have heard the phrase “smile while you dial” or some other such slogan, as a way to encourage them to be enthusiastic about even the most mundane tasks. It’s one of a million variants of the “fake it until you make it” axiom. The belief here is that employees who pretend to be enthusiastic will eventually become truly enthusiastic. The problem is, that thinking, while trendy and touted in many a bestselling business book, technically isn’t true.
What it really does is lead to something called “emotional dissonance.” [1. “National Center for Biotechnology Information.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. Dec. 14, 2015. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10412221.] This occurs when someone’s inward emotions do not match their outside emotions, as those outward emotions must adhere to certain rules. This conflict becomes a stressor and that stressor can eventually lead to burnout, job dissatisfaction, and, ultimately, high turnover in your organization. [2. “Emotional Dissonance and Customer Service: An Exploratory Study.” Southern Cross University. http://epubs.scu.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1311&context=comm_pubs.]
Does that mean employers should just give up on motivating employees? No, not at all. What it means is that trying to make employees enthusiastic about a company mission needs to go deeper than just asking employees to keep a positive attitude. We need to accept that certain tasks just aren’t that exciting. Just telling someone to be “passionate about customer service” or “dedicated to accounts receivable” isn’t going to garner a satisfactory result. Instead of forcing enthusiasm about a given task, companies need to motivate employees at an individual level by giving them something they can be truly passionate about.
Developing Real Motivation Through Incentives
Millennials make up a majority of the workforce, and one thing that millennials need in their work to stay satisfied is recognition. [3. “Millennial Majority Workforce.” Elance-oDesk.com. http://www.elance-odesk.com/millennial-majority-workforce.] This is a generation that believes in individualism and trying to get them into the company mindset is a task that just won’t work if they don’t feel that their work is important to the organization. Of course, millennials aren’t the only ones who want recognition. About 93 percent of all employees who feel valued said that they are motivated to do their best at work. [4. “APA Survey Finds Feeling Valued at Work Linked to Well-Being and Performance.” American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2012/03/well-being.aspx.]
So how do you make these employees feel valued? You make them feel like a crucial part of the overall mission of your company. Things like profit sharing plans, employer-sponsored community programs, and mission statements that benefit not just the company, but employees as well, are all ways to unify your workforce and get them to take ownership of their tasks.
Profit sharing plans: Profit sharing plans work for an obvious reason; employees care more about profits when those profits directly impact their own bottom line. Implementing a small profit sharing program, where employers either give bonuses based on profits at year’s end or do matching contributions to a 401k, is a great way to provide employees with ownership. This directly correlates to productivity, as research has shown that profit sharing programs increase productivity for workers. [5. “Does Profit Sharing Affect Productivity?” NBER. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2015. http://www.nber.org/papers/w4542.]
Community involvement: Another good option is getting the company involved in the community. When employees see their employers giving back to their communities, they become more aligned with that company’s cause. One way to do this is to offer employees the opportunity to volunteer during work hours, which allows them to get involved and see that their company supports their cause. About 63% of employees who work for companies which such programs report being satisfied in their jobs. [6. “The Benefits of Employee Volunteer Programs.” JA Worldwide. https://www.juniorachievement.org/documents/20009/36541/Benefits-of-Employee-Volunteer-Programs.pdf/8de7c97e-246c-4165-900d-b4a84f28c228.]
Inclusive mission statement: One of the more important tools in a company’s belt is a mission statement. It’s easy to deride these—for a while, many businesses were throwing buzzwords at a wall like so much pasta to see what stuck—but a mission statement can, and should, be much more. It should be a clarification for you and everyone you work with about the values you hold true and your goals. Instead of being a disconnected slogan, it should be the foundation of everything you do—and that includes everything your employees do on a day-to-day basis. In fact, the mission statement isn’t a statement: it is an actual mission, and a constant reminder for your employees of how they’re involved in achieving it, and their true worth as a part of that mission.
One great example of all three methods is Duke Raleigh Hospital. [7.Living Our Values: Code of Conduct. Washington, D.C.: Office of Ethics and Business Conduct, World Bank Group, 2009. http://www.dukeraleighhospital.org/repository/raleigh/2013/03/13/09/46/52/8559/LivingOurValues.pdf.] Employees in the healthcare field often have higher rates of job burnout because they have higher levels of emotional dissonance. After all, these are workers who must put on a happy, friendly face, no matter how they’re feeling, in order to reassure patients. So it’s particularly impressive that the hospital was able to raise their employee satisfaction score all the way to 75%.
Duke starts out with a mission statement that does not exclude employees, stating that their mission is “Caring for our patients, their loved ones, and each other.” This mission statement is inclusive, involving the employees and their community, and aligning them to one cause. The hospital also manages their own employee giving campaign, allowing employees to work with a variety of organizations in their community, focusing on everything from education to health and neighborhood improvement. Finally, as a non-profit, the company has many performance-based programs through which employees are regularly recognized for their contributions to the overall mission of the hospital.
Duke Raleigh’s high employment satisfaction rate is particularly impressive, as working in the healthcare industry can be extremely stressful. Despite that, their satisfied employees remain motivated, which likely has much to do with the recognition and sense of inclusiveness they feel thanks to the hospital’s extensive programs.
When you take real steps to motivate your employees, as opposed to simply telling them to be motivated, you get real motivation. The key to creating this real motivation is making the employees feel like part of your company’s mission and then allowing them to share in the resulting rewards.
Engaged Employees Come from a Positive and Cohesive Culture
All of this—the mission statement, the community involvement—is part of company culture. It’s about deciding what kind of company you want to be and then infusing that into everything you do. Employees respond to that. People want to be part of something good and meaningful, where what they do truly matters. The problem with slogans is that while they may capture the spirit of a culture, too many businesses rely on pat phrases and desperate cats to do the heavy lifting of creating a culture. That won’t work.
That’s why organizations need to create their cultures from the top in order to motivate their employees. To create this positive ripple effect, consider the company culture development offered by Applied Vision Works. When you want your employees to have purpose in their jobs, and gain motivation from that purpose, understanding who you are and where you want to go is a positive first step. Contact us today to learn more.