What Makes Loyal Employees “Break Off the Engagement”?
June 11, 2012—It’s easy to tell when employees are “engaged.” They may not be wearing a big, blingy diamond—but the glint of satisfaction in their eye is unmistakable. They clearly enjoy their work, they’re committed to the organization, and they’re happy with their life and purpose. In fact, they’re so intent on helping the company succeed, you’d almost think they were part owners. And in a way they are. The difference is that they take their share of the profits in personal fulfillment rather than salary.
Unfortunately, this state of affairs is not always permanent. Sometimes, almost inexplicably, the stars disappear from an employee’s eyes and he or she becomes one more body in a lunchroom full of average workers. How does this happen? What makes formerly engaged employees disengage?
Wayne Hochwarter, the Jim Moran Professor of Business Administration in the Florida State University College of Business, looked into this question in a study summarized on the FSU Web site in May of 2012. His conclusion?
“A lot of it has to do with resources,” says Hochwarter. And this was true in both blue- and white-collar jobs. Evidently, when employees are asked to do more and more with fewer resources and less support, they begin to feel greater stress. This leads to increased anger along with a growing perception that expectations have become unrealistic. As these employees disengage, they don’t necessarily become terrible employees, but they do tend to regress to “average.”
Hockwarter suggests it is not in an organization’s best interest to reduce employee development and other tools and resources, especially during economically difficult times. “Engaged employees work harder, are more creative and more committed, and they represent an important predictor of company productivity,” he insists. “Unquestionably, organizations with engaged workers have weathered recessionary pressures more successfully.”
This is not surprising considering the finding that engaged employees have a 45 percent higher rate of job performance. “The more that you’re engaged, the more that you’re able to see opportunities and jump on them,” says Hockwarter, and management doesn’t have to stand over such people. “They know the task that they have to do, and they’re just into it. They are totally into their job, totally into accomplishing things that help the organization.“
But Hockwarter warns that like trust, engagement takes a long time to build and can be shattered in one incident.
Research on the subject of human motivation provides insight into the mistakes that cause broken engagement: and there have been mountains of this research accumulating over recent decades. What does it tell us?
Some of the most common blunders managers make are based in one way or another on the following mistaken assumptions about their employees:
- They will shirk responsibility if they can get away with it
- If I don’t tell them they haven’t measured up, they won’t know
- They will be glad to hear that my nephew has an opinion about how they should do their jobs
- If they haven’t finished everything I expect of them in the time I think it should take (even though I’ve never actually tried to do it myself from beginning to end), it must mean they work too slowly or they don’t know what they’re doing
- If they make a suggestion or voice an opinion contrary to my own, they are resisting my ideas
- Their ego will be inflated if I praise them
- I need to offer physical incentives and set goals to get them to accomplish anything
Contrary to assumptions like these, most employees are actually capable of profound engagement if they are approached in the right way. The first requirement, say researchers, is that they are paid fairly enough so that family financial worries are off the table. After that, however, most people aren’t motivated by financial rewards—and in fact, external rewards can actually dampen internal, or intrinsic, motivation.
In his 2009 book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink offers a simple but adequate flow chart explaining how motivation works in the workplace, as well as in other contexts, such as at home and at school. Ever since the assembly line mentality invaded these spheres, the prevailing belief has been that people naturally hate work and that they can’t wait to weasel out of it at the very first opportunity. But in fact, research is finding, we thoroughly enjoy work when it offers elements of autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose—and we willingly spend far more time at this work than we are asked to spend. If managers begin with this understanding, they have a much better hope of keeping the employee engagement fires burning.
Pink's advice to managers (and even parents or teachers) is to first ask yourself “Is the task I’m requiring mostly routine?” If the answer is yes, think about whether you can introduce some variety and challenge into the task or connect it to a larger purpose. “Concentrate on building a healthy, long-term motivational environment that pays people fairly and that fosters autonomy, mastery, and purpose,” writes Pink. When these intrinsic motivations are working, don't use ‘if-then’ rewards (the kind based on the principle: If you do this, I will give you that). Such rewards can undermine the sense of purpose already driving employees. Instead, consider using rewards that are unexpected and noncontingent. These rewards will be more effective, especially if they are in the form of praise and positive feedback rather than physical rewards. The praise and feedback should provide useful information about what they have done well.
On the other hand, if it is impossible to make tasks less routine, then you will probably need to use rewards—even ‘if-then’ rewards. However, says Pink, “be sure to offer a rationale for why the task is necessary, acknowledge that the task is boring, and allow people to complete the task in their own way.”
Whether you’re an office manager, a teacher, or a parent, perhaps the most important thing to remember is that you’re trying to foster commitment to a shared sense of purpose—not robotic obedience or rote compliance. Humans are highly social and almost everything we learn sticks better when delivered in the context of mutual appreciation, respect and understanding.
Sure, employees should do the jobs they are paid to do, appreciation or no appreciation. And much of the time they will, as long as they are not prevented from enjoying the intrinsic rewards that are a byproduct of growth and satisfaction in thier work. But when managers take the trouble to go above and beyond; to foster and support the engagement of the people who work for them, employees do a great deal more than simply “their jobs.” And in the end, everyone profits.
The Motivation Equation