Most managers think that motivating employees is the #1 part of their job. Or they make the distinction between managers, who attempt to get things done by delegating and motivating employees through incentives and discipline, and leaders, who create a compelling vision and motivate employees through empowerment and inspiration. But everyone seems to feel that motivating employees is the critical aspect of any supervisory position.
If I think about my own work/career history, however, this theory of management does not really jibe with reality. In most jobs that I have held, I was already motivated to perform well, before I ever even cracked open a training manual. My manager had very little to do with it. And I think most people are hard-wired this way. (See Jim Collins talking about this here.) Most of us want to be successful and we want to spend our work hours doing good work towards a meaningful pursuit.
Rather than thinking about how to motivate employees, managers should recognize that people show up to work motivated on day one, and think about eliminating the things they do that strip away motivation over time. How is it that so many organizations hire winning employees and gradually turn them into apathetic zombies by the end of their first year on the job?
This theory of workplace motivation is consistent with a theory of human psychology known as “self-determination theory” (SDT), based on the work of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. Self-determination theory proposes that humans are inherently motivated. We have natural tendencies to want to learn, grow, master our environments, and integrate new experiences into who we are (you’ll often hear me talk about “work/life integration” rather than “work/life balance”.)
According to SDT, these natural tendencies are a part of healthy human behavior, but they can be thwarted if certain psychological needs are not met. The theory (and supporting research) show three “nutriments” that are required for healthy human functioning and motivation: autonomy, competence and relatedness. If conditions don’t allow for these needs to be fulfilled, intrinsic motivation dies, much like the plant on my office desk when I forget to give it water and daylight.
So how can businesses and organizations ensure that these needs are being met in a way that encourages and facilitates their employees’ natural motivations to come to bear? The best way to answer this question may be to look at examples of highly successful companies that are ensuring that the basic needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness are being met in their organizations:
Zappos has become famous for creating a culture that is filled with freedom of individual expression. One of their core values is to hire workers that are “fun, and a little weird” to emphasize the importance of individuality.
Best Buy’s corporate employees work in a “Results Only Work Environment” ROWE. This means nobody cares how, when, or where the employees work, only what they accomplish.
Similarly, Netflix announced it was allowing its corporate employees to take vacation whenever and as often as they want (as long as they deliver results,) adopting a strategy that IBM took a few years earlier.
Google introduced “20% time” allowing their workforce to spend one fifth of their time focused on whatever projects they want to work on (even if it is something beyond their job description.)
Software company Valve says their employees get “100%” of their time to work on whatever they want. Their new employee handbook went absolutely viral as an example of a new business model based on complete autonomy. As an example, their employees’ desks have wheels so that people can sit wherever they want and work with (and next to) whomever they want.
Lululemon’s workplace culture is based on the idea of “goal setting.” Employees are specifically trained and coached on how to accomplish goals (including their own personal ones unrelated to the business demands of the company.)
Zappos changed their entire hierarchy so they could break their career path into smaller steps. They knew that employees would be happier with small promotions every six months than they would with big promotions every two years. People need to feel a sense of progress.
According to Chip and Dan Heath in “The Myth of the Garage,” Hindustan Unilever expects senior managers to spend 30-40% of their time in grooming the people below them. They also have executives change roles every two to three years so they are always learning different aspects of the business.
I was recently at an Apple Store when every employee in the store broke into a standing ovation for ten minutes to celebrate the transfer of one of their colleagues to a new store. I don’t know how much of this was company policy, company culture, or just the unique dynamic of this particular employee leaving this particular store, but for her the “relatedness” score must have been through the roof as they all lined up to give her a hug and cheer her on for her next role.
Zappos (again!) sets up their company headquarters so there is only one ingress and egress—a way to force spontaneous interactions between employees. They also forego the traditional password based logon into their computer system for one that quizzes employees on their ability to identify pictures of co-workers. They track their employees’ ability to identify colleagues as an engagement measure for the whole company.
These examples highlight companies that, whether they are aware of it or not, are applying the principles of SDT to allow the intrinsic motivation of their workforce to come shining through. Each of these companies happens to be highly successful, rated highly by both employees and customers.
If you have other examples of companies that are fostering autonomy, competence and relatedness, I would love to hear about them!
by Jeremy McCarthy
Learn more about my online course on positive leadership here.