Departments - March/April 2015

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The Root of Disengagement

By Deborah L. Vence


If companies are struggling to keep employees engaged and motivated in their jobs, it might be because their approaches to motivation are outdated.

Research conducted by The Ken Blanchard Companies—a global organization that specializes in leadership development and employee engagement—is aiming to help organizations address the growing decline in employee engagement by explaining the source of disengagement. The company suggested that motivation plays a key role in the root source of disengagement.

Blanchard's development of the enhanced training solution, Optimal Motivation®, is rooted in the company's innovative approach to motivation, which also is outlined in program co-author Susan Fowler's book, Why Motivating People Doesn't Work and What Does. Optimal motivation helps organizations understand that the key to engagement is the quality of an individual's day-to-day motivation.

"Traditional motivation techniques are often characterized by the carrot and the stick. Carrots, in the form of incentives, bonuses and rewards that research shows take people's focus from the task or goal, and shift it to the external reward—undermining people's sense of autonomy (they are controlled by the need to obtain the reward that is out of their control)," said Susan Fowler, author and senior consulting partner for The Ken Blanchard Companies.

"Also, carrots are intangibles such as power, status and image—these undermine people's autonomy because power, status and image reside in the eyes of others whom you don't control. These intangible rewards also undermine people's psychological needs for relatedness because they depend on one-upmanship or elevating oneself above others," she said.

But, "Ironically," Fowler said, "the carrots often turn into a form of a stick—the pressure to perform at all costs, to win, to compete. Tension and pressure are often used to motivate people and they do. Unfortunately, they put people into a suboptimal form of motivation—a low-quality of motivation—that results in poorer performance and unsustainable effort. This is especially true for people who don't understand how to reframe such pressurized tactics. A focus on metrics and results, ironically, usually has the opposite affect intended."

In a company white paper titled "A Business Case for Optimal Motivation", it is explained how people come to be actively disengaged, disengaged, engaged or have employee work passion. Through what's called the appraisal process, people are evaluating their experience in the workplace constantly. Such appraisals lead to conclusions that result in people's sense of well-being, intentions, behavior, and ultimately, their experience of employee work passion.

The fact is that people are appraising their experience in the workplace every day, coming to both cognitive and emotional conclusions: I feel threatened, safe, unsure, positive, frightened, fearful, optimistic, etc., which leads to an important question: What if managers could help people manage their appraisal process? They can. Even more importantly, individuals can learn to manage their own daily appraisal process so they are more likely to experience employee work passion over time. How? Through the skill of motivation.