Why we need to rethink motivation and engagement

Dan Gregory @DanGregoryCo

For most of this discussion, I’ll be referring to the above Motivation & Engagement Model that I’ve borrowed from Colin James - colinjamesmethod.com.au

I’ve used the words Motivated and Unmotivated in place of Colin’s "Active and Passive" - partly because it makes more sense in this context, but mostly so I can do want untalented pop stars do during the songwriting process - “Change a word and claim a third”.

The model is fairly self-explanatory; it tracks engagement on one axis and motivation on the other. Colin then breaks down who, from an organizational perspective, sits in each quadrant.

In the highly motivated and engaged quadrant we have the “Performers” - these are the stars of our team. In the engaged but unmotivated quadrant, we have the “Players” - they show up, do their job and play along but don’t yet match the performers. Unmotivated and disengaged quadrant dwellers are referred to as “Passengers” - they’re coasting along and benefiting from the first two quadrants mentioned. And finally, our motivated and disengaged quadrant are the “Pissed off” - they’re disruptive and damaging to culture, performance and profitability.

This is all fairly straight forward. However, when we overlay some of the results of Gallup’s Global Workforce Engagement Study, the proportions start to become a little alarming.

The “Pissed off”, or actively disengaged workers, make up 20% or one fifth of the workforce. Potentially worse however are the “Passengers”, or the simply disengaged workers, who represent slightly more than 50% of the workforce. If we’re feeling generous, we might assume a healthy 5% of our staff are star “Performers” which leaves only a quarter of our team coming in as “Players”.

In other words, only 30% of the workforce identify as engaged, and the larger your organisation, the more these number become statistically relevant. This is despite the best efforts of leaders to create cultures of the willing for the past few decades.

Engagement is key to performance, productivity, profitability & customer satisfaction

One other thing that Gallup’s study indicated was that organizations with high levels of engagement are more productive, have better performing staff, are more profitable and have significantly higher customer satisfaction measures than the norm. Put more concisely, the more engaged your staff, the more engaged your customers, clients, constituents and communities.

So this is a critical issue and it appears we are mostly getting it horribly wrong!

Our typical response is the carrot and stick

When faced with such a challenge our default thinking is to engage in a campaign of either discipline or motivation, or a combination of both. On the surface of it, this makes logical sense; increase motivation and the engagement will follow. Lift engagement and you’ll likely see a rise in performance and profitability.

This is often a sound strategy where simple tasks are to be performed by low or semi-skilled workers, but as complexity increases, the effectiveness of this approach diminishes.

We’re often told that motivation, discipline and engagement drive performance

Ask a professional athlete what made them successful and you almost always get a story of motivation and discipline - they just “wanted it more!” Of course, this is very good for their egos but hardly reflects reality or even probability.

Far more likely, they benefited from a specific genetic makeup, from being born in a location where their sport was favored or at least available, they probably had parents who were willing to get them out of bed for 5:00am training from an early age (giving them a ten year head start on less fortunate athletes they competed with in their mid teens) not to mention the sporting institutions, sports psychologists and specialist coaches that are enrolled to develop an athlete with demonstrating even a modicum of promise in the developed world…. but yeah, they just wanted it more!

This is not to dismiss the role of discipline and motivation, merely to reveal the untold side of the story and dial down a little of the ego-based hype and the ensuing blame that is leveled at those who are less successful - i.e. “You just didn’t want it enough!”

It is usually very lucky people who tend to claim there’s no such thing as luck. However, what is true, is that we can increase our chances of experiencing it.

Performance precedes both motivation and engagement

This seems counter intuitive and it certainly runs contrary to all of the stories of heroic success we’ve been raised on (or indoctrinated by).

What we know from behavioral studies carried out all around the world is that “Design beats Discipline”. In other words, a system, process or environment designed with a bias towards success and away from failure generates more reliable and predictable success than motivation and discipline alone.

An example of this is the work we do with financial institutions who have identified a "performance gap" between intention and action when it comes to personal savings schemes.

Ask any audience if saving for the future is a good idea and you’ll receive unanimous support. Ask the same group who has more money set aside in voluntary savings (things like bonds and shares) than they do in compulsory (or systematized) savings (things like a mortgage, superannuation or 401K) and the response is quite different.

In fact, the only time customers of banks and financial institutions achieve consistent success in saving for the future, is when the money is deducted from their salary or wage before they ever see it and is placed into an account they have limited access to.

In other words, when there is a bias towards success and failure is rendered highly unlikely, we get "lucky" or at least luckier.

Design drives success and performance, but how does this precede motivation and engagement?

One of the things that teachers observe in early childhood is that we work harder to be good at things we’re already good at. If, for instance, I demonstrate some artistic ability, I am more likely to spend my time practicing it. This in turn improves performance, which elicits praise and so the cycle continues.

I observed this same tendency as a guitar teacher (the profession that allowed me to live well whilst at university).

The traditional teaching method, which had informed my own learning experience, is to develop technical capability a little at a time and progressively move from one small gain to the next.

Then, years later after much disciplined practice, you might just be able to play a song or two. If you have ever tried to get a child to do their music practice, you’ll know that carrots and sticks soon ensue.

I decided to try something different. Instead, I asked the children I was teaching who their favorite pop or rock act was. Then, with no care for technical proficiency, I taught them to play a song by the artist in the first few weeks.

They had no real understanding of the musical theory behind what they were doing (I’d add that later) but their motivation and engagement went through the roof. Parents were effusive with their praise for both me and their children, telling me that their progeny were likely prodigies, such was their enthusiasm for practice.

All I had done, was to put performance (something that would usually elude them for months if not years) at the beginning of their journey and motivation and engagement followed.

Help us feel competent and connected and we’ll be more engaged & enthusiastic

So how might this play out in organizational life? Quite simply, it means a move away from the charismatic model of leadership (or less reliance on it) and a shift towards leadership that is more strategic and design-based. Develop systems and processes that make performance easier and more likely and engagement and motivation will follow.

Let’s revisit our model.

Most of a leader’s focus will be centered on the “Performers” and the “Pissed off” (outlined in red). Which is hardly surprising, we elevate those who do well and manage (or manage out) those who we deem to be destructive.

As logical as this may seem it is, I’m afraid, a mistake - a mistake because we are focused on only a quarter of our team and only a fifth of them are worth keeping.

Better, in my opinion, to focus on the bottom two quadrants (marked in green) and instead of berating them for not being more like the “Performers”, develop systems that allow them to play at that level with greater ease and less to lose (indicated in magenta).

Make this kind of performance possible independent of motivation and engagement and motivation and engagement will ultimately show up.