Monday, April 17, 2006

Expediters Motivate

The data continues to pour in about disengaged workforces. For the last half of the 20th century, we referred to whether an employee was “motivated” or not. Now we speak of “engagement”. Either way, the surveys say that with few exceptions (such as the most admired companies to work for), we’re doing an abysmal job of fostering the spirit of employees. This message just will not go away despite a long ago awareness by the top management of organizations that something must be done. The irony is most managers themselves are caught up in the ennui. They too could do with a boost.

Take some of the latest research. According to Gallup’s semi-annual Employment Engagement Index, about half of employees have “checked out”. In Towers Perrin’s 2005 Global Workforce Survey of 85,000 people, only 14 percent of all employees worldwide were highly engaged in their job. The number was 17 percent for Canadians. Equally as compelling, Sirota, a New York-based organization, reports that from 2001 to 2004, 85 percent of the 1.2 million employees surveyed at 52 primarily Fortune 1000 companies suffered steep declines in morale after an initial “high” of enthusiasm in the first six months of employment. Mid-career employees—those between 35 and 54 who make up approximately half the workforce in North America--- are getting a bit grumpy too. An Age Wave/Concours Group/Harris survey in June 2004 of more than 7,700 U.S. workers found that only 43 percent are passionate about their jobs. They have the lowest satisfaction rates with their immediate managers and the least confidence in top executives. Why can’t we get this right?

Decades of research from multiple sources underscores that regardless of personality, age, education, tenure or position, employees are most frequently motivated (or engaged) when they feel emotionally connected to their organizations. The fastest way to being connected is through their bosses—that relationship can make or break “motivation”. Let’s call such bosses “expediters” because they treat employees as customers, helping them to get their jobs done.

It’s not easy to be an expediter. My head spins with all the suggestions I read in the various research reports. But one that caught my attention is Jerald Salacuse’s contention is that we’re now in an era of “leading leaders”---smart, talented people who wish to be treated more like peers than employees in a command and control work environment. This requires “interest-based leadership” in which effective leaders tailor their approach in one-on-one meetings to the particular situations they face. One thing is for certain: what works is leadership “up close and personal”. This resonates with Daniel Goleman’s message about the importance of emotional intelligence for leaders or how they handle themselves and their relationships.

Deep down the design of our brain accounts for our reliance on connectedness. The open-loop nature of our limbic system which relates to our emotions means we depend a great deal on external sources to manage our emotions. There’s nothing automatically self-managing about our feelings. We are sharply attuned to our environment. People in work groups “catch” feelings from one another. Cheerfulness and warmth are more catchy than irritability. Laughter creates a spontaneous chain reaction. Leaders who are interested rather than interesting feed our brain’s need for “limbic locks”---direct emotional connections, brain to brain.

If the emotional connectedness aspect of a leader is the source of being an expediter, how does someone like our new Canadian Prime Minister stack up? I had some fun with my leadership class at McMaster University by asking the participants to rate Stephen Harper’s “motivation index” on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 meaning “very unlikely to motivate” and 5 meaning “very likely to motivate”. They used as background information his five priorities, a range of media reports on his leadership style and Sirota’s research on motivation (see After considerable debate and discussion, sometimes heated because of different political beliefs, the group of almost 30 seasoned managers gave Harper a 2.75 rating. Despite the recognition that he’s projecting the appearance of taking charge, the group expressed the concern that his pacesetting/commanding style may not work in the long run. His way of leading, in their assessment, does not build a positive working culture.

Fred Emery would agree. As a renowned social scientist more than 50 years ago, he noted that tightly managed organizations (most often named as bureaucracies) are the cause of individual frustration, anger, contempt and other negative feelings. He further explained that in flatter organizations where responsibility for coordination and control is located with the group of people doing the work, employees are motivated to do their best and to cooperate out of self-interest. Overall, it is a healthier, happier workplace more often characterized by mutual support and respect.

For those who like things neat and tidy, this conception of how to motivate might appear too risky, too unstructured and laissez-faire. However, the irony is that accountability and taking responsibility are more effectively self-managed when bosses position themselves humbly as leaders of leaders. Walt Whitman echoed this art of conversation as the “right voice”:

“Surely, whoever speaks to me in the right voice, him or her I shall follow.”