Motivation encourages employees to work hard and do a good job. Unfortunately, the converse is also true: Loss of motivation discourages employees from working hard and doing a good job. So, it certainly makes sense that businesses should do everything in their power to motivate employees. Yet workers are leaving their jobs in droves, and motivation (or lack thereof) appears to have a lot to do with it.
Demotivation and the "Great Resignation"
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 20 million people quit their jobs from July through November 2021. These “quits” (and others before and after this time period) have become known collectively as the “Great Resignation.” To understand why so many people are quitting their jobs, researchers analyzed 34 million online employee profiles to identify U.S. workers who left their employer for any reason between April and September 2021. What they found is that it's not always—or often—about compensation. In fact, employee compensation ranked 16th among all topics in predicting turnover, as reported in the MIT Sloan Management Review, based on data from Revelio Labs which analyzed 34 million online employee profiles to identify U.S. workers who left their employer for any reason (including quitting, retiring or being laid off) between April and September 2021. According to the data, these are the top predictors of employee turnover, relative to employee compensation:
- Toxic corporate culture
- Job insecurity and reorganization
- Effects of high levels of innovation on work/life balance
- Failure to recognize employee performance
- Poor response to COVID-19
None of these issues is easy to fix, but all affect or are affected by employee motivation and loss of motivation. A focus on motivating employees could drive improvements in all these areas, stemming the tide of quits and generally improving business outcomes. How? The benefits of a motivated workforce include lower levels of absenteeism, improved relations between management and workers, improved worker performance and improved product quality and customer service.
What Causes a Lack of Motivation in Employees?
Employees lose motivation for several reasons, but Richard E. Clark and Bror Saxberg, writing for the Harvard Business Review, have defined four “motivation traps”:
- Values mismatch: The employee doesn’t connect with or care about a task enough to perform the task effectively.
- Lack of self-efficacy: The employee doesn’t believe he or she has the capacity or ability to carry out a task.
- Disruptive emotions: The employee is consumed with negative emotions, such as anxiety or anger.
- Attribution errors: The employee can’t accurately identify the reason why a task is difficult or attributes difficulty with a task to reasons beyond the employee’s control.
“Carefully assessing the nature of the motivational failure—before taking action—is crucial,” writes Clark, a professor emeritus of psychology and technology at the University of Southern California, and Saxberg, vice president of learning science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. “Applying the wrong strategy (say, urging an employee to work harder, when the reason [they aren’t] is that they’re convinced they can’t do it) can actually backfire, causing motivation to falter further.”
Promoting a Culture of Employee Motivation
Where there's one unmotivated employee, there are likely more. Indeed, workplace motivation is typically a function of an organization's overall culture. By focusing on the following motivation builders, business leaders can work toward a culture of motivation and counter some of the major reasons for employee turnover.
1. Increase Motivation by Making Work Meaningful
Making progress on a meaningful task is one of the most motivating experiences employees can have, according to the American Psychological Association. Teresa Amabile, a social and organizational psychologist at Harvard Business School, and her colleagues surveyed employees across a variety of industries about how certain events affected their motivation and creativity. The research showed that the most powerful precursor to employees feeling intrinsic motivation was the feeling of making progress at meaningful work.
It can be tempting to think of meaningful work as tasks with a high profile or those that will generate revenue or new customers. All of that is meaningful, to be sure, but meaningful work can be any job that has a clear purpose and, ideally, measurable benchmarks. Communicating purpose and benchmarks to employees can make them feel engaged and good about what they are doing.
2. Recognize Good Work to Motivate Employees
Employees are motivated when they feel that their work is being recognized. However, just tossing out a “Good job!” now and again won’t cut it. Employees are motivated by recognition that is honest, authentic and individualized. “Workplace recognition motivates, provides a sense of accomplishment and makes employees feel valued for their work,” according the Gallup report “Employee Recognition: Low Cost, High Impact.” “Recognition not only boosts individual employee engagement, but it also has been found to increase productivity and loyalty to the company, leading to higher retention.”
Business leaders should focus on identifying good work, being specific about why that work stands out, and promoting that recognition on internal social, collaboration and other channels.
3. Balance Support and Autonomy to Boost Motivation
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the how and where people work. As we continue through (and someday out of) the pandemic, the way in which organizations settle on the “new normal” will have a significant effect on worker motivation.
In a 2021 Harvard Business Review (HBR) study of more than 5,000 knowledge workers around the world, 61% reported that they would like the flexibility to determine where they would work most effectively—in the office or at home. Further, 59% of respondents said this kind of flexibility is more important to them than salary or other benefits. This level of autonomy is important not just when it comes to where an employee works, but also how an employee works.
“Mandates feel like a violation of autonomy, which is one of the most important intrinsic drivers of threat and reward in the brain,” note David Rock and Christy Pruitt-Haynes in the HBR article “Why Mandates Make Us Feel Threatened.”
Of course, businesses must set down some mandates, but it’s important to carefully monitor and balance the amount of attention and direction given to employees. “Micromanagement is a motivation killer. On the flip side, not paying enough attention to employees can be demotivating, too,” notes Jennifer Thomas in the SHRM article “How Managers Can Motivate Employees.”
4. Thoughtfully Implement and Communicate Change
Change is the only constant in today’s business and global environment. Workers left to wonder where they stand in the new order are less likely to be focused on the work at hand. This is especially true when employees are working remotely and can’t “see” management’s gears turning. To the extent possible, business leaders should invite insight from employees and be transparent about changes to the organization. Workers who feel included and heard can be more likely to transition positively through change.
5. Consider the Whole Employee
Our work and home lives have become inextricably tied, especially during the last two (going on three) years. For better and for worse, employees can work anywhere, at any time. It can be easy for employers to take advantage by making workers feel like they are never “off.” This is especially true in companies and industries where constant innovation is competitive table stakes. Business leaders must be thoughtful of the cost of such a pace to employees’ personal lives, and provide time, space and authentic permission for workers to take care of themselves and their families, as well as their jobs. In return, employees will be healthier in mind and body—and may be much more motivated to stick around.
Especially given what employees and their organizations have been through the last couple of years, motivation and loss of motivation are complicated issues to unpack. When employees demonstrate a lack of motivation or even no motivation to do anything, business leaders should take care to identify the causes and implement meaningful strategies for making employees feel engaged and valued. However, business leaders should not check “motivate employees” off a list and move on; rather, they should continue to focus their lens on individual and team workplace motivation. Doing so can pay off in measurable—and immeasurable—ways.