Take a Master of Business Administration course, any under-graduate business degree or work-place leadership seminar and you will come across many theories on how to motivate employees.
Some presenters won’t get around to explaining what employees are to be motivated to do because that’s assumed to be understood. We all presume to want motivated employees because a motivated employee is supposed to be a good employee. Good, nice; words so imprecise as to be meaningless. And motivating employees just to be motivated is also meaningless.
Enter Adam Grant, a super-efficient and prolific academic at the University of Pennsylvania who as an organizational psychologist studies these things. As most psychologists, he works in his field partially to better understand himself.
He is the epitome of the motivated employee. He knows this because he can feel the drive from within and knows the quality of his work life experiences. The rest of us know it because of his outputs: the speed with which he completed his PhD, the vast number of peer-reviewed publications, the students trailing him who are never refused assistance.
His own motivator is helping people, and the rewards from doing so drive him to productivity and efficiency in a positive cycle of continuous reinforcement. Acknowledging that we are all driven differently, his gifts are in researching how employers can encourage their staff to be productive, and how employees can be satisfied in their jobs and careers. It is that link between processes and traits within the individual (such as the need to help) and the external (like productivity or efficiency) that he works with.
There is the usual list of motivators to help staff work hard, stay and be pleasant – good pay, a career path, managers that remove obstacles, empowerment, recognition, achievable goals – but there are some more quirky ones like service to others and giving at work. Think about how much better we are at taking care of the health of our pets than ourselves. There are those who wouldn’t bother with a flu shot but can be encouraged if it’s to protect the young or the elderly around them. A focus on others and reframing a task as helpful to someone else have been proven to be highly effective motivators, especially when there is feedback which says the worker is making a valuable contribution.
We can all draw upon incredible internal resources if we feel good about what we do.
Another unusual topic of interest to Grant in work-motivation is how our attitude towards death impacts us. Not a just carpe diem-type response of just doing it before time runs out, Grant’s study with Duke University academic, Kimberly A. Wade-Benzoni, contemplates how different workers react to death awareness whether in response to personal crises, traumatic events, the aging process or via exposure to death through the very nature of their jobs, such as police, doctors, para-medics, and war correspondents.
In this view, there are two basic responses: death anxiety and death reflection. Death anxiety is an emotional experience of fear, anxiety and dread, and it triggers self-preservation. In the workplace, the immediate emotional stress can cause absenteeism, lateness and quitting, particularly when the event is work-related. Death reflection is more cognitive and longer-term where people think about the meaning of life and their place within it. It often results in caring behaviours, or even a career change or more volunteer work, depending on the value of work in their lives and their ability to shape it.
Not many employers are prepared to help staff who are dealing directly or vicariously with death events. Even fewer know how to encourage reflection and drive caring responses that might improve well-being and safety.