A well-motivated workforce is enthusiastic, productive and good to be around. Above all motivation is a key component of business success. But finding the right formula can be difficult, especially today. Times are uncertain and tools such as bonuses, options and the promise of a pay rise are no longer as effective as they once were. Forward-looking businesses are seeking alternative solutions, ranging from the straightforward -making employees feel genuinely valued and empowered – to the zany – bespoke computer games, complete with virtual prizes. ​

MANAGEMENT

 

MANAGEMENT

The extra mile

Few would disagree that the past 12 months have been full of surprises. For some, these have been welcome; for others, less so. Either way, events of the past year have had a profound effect on business, with many long-held assumptions about the economic and political framework in which companies operate now shrouded in murk.

Looking ahead, uncertainty is expected to persist for several years, creating a distinct, and often frustrating, loss of visibility for businesses of every shape and size. Not only does this unpredictability make investment decisions difficult, it also presents a significant challenge to anyone who has a company to build or a target to hit, and a team that needs motivating in order to get there. How do you keep everyone pulling together and concentrating on the task in hand when you can barely see past the next bend in the road?

The rise of the gig economy and the surge in the number of contractual or freelance workers present further challenges. Their relationship with employers tends to be short term so they may be less motivated to maximise their output. And for managers, it may be considerably harder to motivate a team whose very composition is constantly changing.​

The power of empowerment

As a leader, says Katia Beauchamp, co-founder and CEO of beauty box business Birchbox, the place to start is with yourself. “The best way to motivate people is not with options and incentives – although everyone in this firm is an equity holder – it’s to make them feel like owners themselves. If you empower your team it really makes all the difference: let them know that they are trusted to make decisions and to make mistakes, and that if they do make mistakes it doesn’t mean you will stop trusting them. Because to get real growth you have to make mistakes.” 

Most people have worked at one time or another for the kind of boss whose instinctive reaction when things get tricky is to look for a patsy on whom to offload the blame. Don’t be that boss – instead take a leaf from Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella’s book. He recently revealed the contents of an email he sent to the team responsible for last year’s disastrous artificial intelligence chatbot Tay, which had to be hastily unplugged after its tweets, initially harmless, descended rapidly into racism and foul language.

The blame game

The company was forced to make a public apology and endure considerable humiliation. After such an embarrassing episode, many outsiders might have expected Nadella to heap opprobrium on hapless colleagues. Not a bit of it: “Keep pushing and keep learning,” went Nadella’s uplifting message. “The key is to keep learning and keep improving.” 

Times of trouble or uncertainty are opportunities to flex your motivational leadership muscles, agrees Harvard Business School graduate Beauchamp. Birchbox has 1 million subscribers across the US, UK, France, Spain, Belgium and Ireland and has been credited with creating a brand-new category, the so-called subscription box model. But it has also struggled with explosive competition from deep-pocketed rivals, including the biggest beast in the e-commerce jungle, Amazon, which started a rival service within a year of Birchbox’s launch.

To cope with that kind of challenge requires resilience and agility, and the readiness to admit that you don’t know everything. “As a leader you are not some anointed person with all the right answers. There are always a million answers. What the leader does is choose a destination and then execute. If it’s not panning out then you choose another place to go.”

Superchickens and eggs 

There is also, of course, the vexed question of productivity and the ongoing debate over the link between motivated employees and increased output. One popular approach in recent years has been the ‘Superstars’ model, predicated on selecting the most motivated and productive individuals from across the business and putting them together into hyper-effective ‘dream teams’. 

It sounds like common sense but as CEO turned business author and speaker Margaret Heffernan has noted there are problems with this approach, illustrated by the unlikely sounding ‘superchickens’ experiment conducted by biologist William Muir at Purdue University back in the 1990s. Looking to maximise egg laying in the poultry industry, Muir compared the fortunes of a flock of average egg producers with those of a specially chosen group of super-productive fowl over the course of six generations. 

Deadly rivals

At the end of the trial, the average egg layers were plump and healthy and their productivity had increased. The superchickens, however, had had a bad time of it – only three were left alive, while the rest had been set upon by their flockmates.

The take-home messages for motivation, says Heffernan, are that there is such a thing as unhealthy rivalry, that outstanding individual performances often come at the expense of the whole, and that if you treat people like lab rats (or chickens) then that’s how they will behave. 

“There’s lots of academic research into teambuilding and what matters is not so much the intellectual stuff like IQ, but social skills – how in tune they all are with each other, whether they listen and whether someone is overly dominant in the group,” she says.

Play the game

Gamification is another trendy topic in the motivation debate. In an age where shop floor workers, senior managers and almost everyone in-between are glued to games such as Candy Crush, it seems only logical to use a bit of game playing to spice up work performance too. US IT giant Cisco is one of many companies to have used game-style challenges to encourage the sharing of knowledge and ideas between its thousands of employees across the globe. By setting goals and awarding virtual prizes to users, the company has boosted the take-up of its intranet – helping to break down inter-departmental silos by rewarding employees who answer each other’s questions with a higher ranking.

“The best aspect of gamification tools is that they are social,” says Heffernan. “It’s a way to say thank you that is easily visible to others. And for low-risk activities they can provide small, immediate rewards.”

But in the long run the novelty of work-oriented games can wane, she warns. “It’s fun to get a star the first few times. But after a few weeks the effect wears off.” 

Traditional remedies

Warren Jenchner, managing director of South East London-based specialist lift business Apex Lifts, prefers to use more traditional techniques with his small but mixed workforce of 120, which includes factory workers, service engineers, salespeople and administrative staff. “You have to listen to people, and really lead rather than just shout. That’s something that I’ve found comes more naturally with age and experience,” he says.

Money alone is not a good motivator – while feeling under-rewarded will demotivate, it doesn’t work the other way round. Generous pay does not produce a proportional boost in productivity.

Spend less, do more

Instead a few cheaper but more creative methods can yield results. “It’s important to look after people’s wellbeing, because when someone is off ill, it can have a really big impact in a smaller business like ours,” says Jenchner. So, at Apex there’s a gym with a personal trainer and a proper kitchen and lounge area where people are encouraged to sit together and chew over shared issues while eating their meals. 

Uncertainty over prospects can breed anxiety and loss of focus, so an important part of maintaining levels of motivation is to make your people feel valued and looked after, agrees Sir Cary Cooper, 50th anniversary professor of organisational psychology and health at Alliance Manchester Business School. “Wellbeing has gone from a nice-to-have to a must-have. Its impact can be profound but you can’t just have a few beanbags and pool tables and some salads in the canteen; that won’t cut it.”

Be positive

Cooper’s top tips for making sustainable improvements in motivation and engagement involve no quick fixes. “It’s not easy – it starts with culture, and with managers who operate through praise and reward rather than criticism. So identify your most socially adept line managers, and train them,” he says. 

Above all, as a leader you have to grow and develop yourself, just as you require others to. “I now have a much more philosophical definition of success,” says Birchbox’s Beauchamp. “Your job is not to get praise from your team but to make sure that they are coming to work happy and motivated.”

It’s grown-up, effective and much more sustainable, but she admits to the odd pang of nostalgia for the days when the wins were simpler and more clearly visible than they are today. “Then it was all about ‘Wow! I just closed this brand.’ Now I pat other people on the back, but it’s much rarer to get a pat on the back yourself,” she says  

Back to articles

Few would disagree that the past 12 months have been full of surprises. For some, these have been welcome; for others, less so. Either way, events of the past year have had a profound effect on business, with many long-held assumptions about the economic and political framework in which companies operate now shrouded in murk. 

Looking ahead, uncertainty is expected to persist for several years, creating a distinct, and often frustrating, loss of visibility for businesses of every shape and size. Not only does this unpredictability make investment decisions difficult, it also presents a significant challenge to anyone who has a company to build or a target to hit, and a team that needs motivating in order to get there. How do you keep everyone pulling together and concentrating on the task in hand when you can barely see past the next bend in the road? 

The rise of the gig economy and the surge in the number of contractual or freelance workers present further challenges. Their relationship with employers tends to be short term so they may be less motivated to maximise their output. And for managers, it may be considerably harder to motivate a team whose very composition is constantly changing. 

Money alone is not a good motivator – while feeling under-rewarded will demotivate, it doesn’t work the other way round”​

The ‘Superstars’ model is predicated on selecting the most motivated and productive individuals from across the business and putting them together into hyper-effective ‘dream teams’”​

The 

extra 

mile

In an age where shop-floor workers, senior managers and almost everyone in between are glued to games such as Candy Crush, it seems only logical to use a bit of game- playing to spice up work performance”​

The ‘Superstars’ model is predicated on selecting the most motivated and productive individuals from across the business and putting them together into hyper-effective ‘dream teams’”​

Money alone is not a good motivator – while feeling under-rewarded will demotivate, it doesn’t work the other way round”​

Wellbeing has gone from a nice-to-have to a must-have. Its impact can be profound but you can’t just have a few bean bags and pool tables and some salads in the canteen”​

The power of empowerment

As a leader, says Katia Beauchamp, co-founder and CEO of beauty box business Birchbox, the place to start is with yourself. “The best way to motivate people is not with options and incentives – although everyone in this firm is an equity holder – it’s to make them feel like owners themselves. If you empower your team it really makes all the difference: let them know that they are trusted to make decisions and to make mistakes, and that if they do make mistakes it doesn’t mean you will stop trusting them. Because to get real growth you have to make mistakes.” 

Most people have worked at one time or another for the kind of boss whose instinctive reaction when things get tricky is to look for a patsy on whom to offload the blame. Don’t be that boss – instead take a leaf from Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella’s book. He recently revealed the contents of an email he sent to the team responsible for last year’s disastrous artificial intelligence chatbot Tay, which had to be hastily unplugged after its tweets, initially harmless, descended rapidly into racism and foul language.

The blame game

The company was forced to make a public apology and endure considerable humiliation. After such an embarrassing episode, many outsiders might have expected Nadella to heap opprobrium on hapless colleagues. Not a bit of it: “Keep pushing and keep learning,” went Nadella’s uplifting message. “The key is to keep learning and keep improving.” 

Times of trouble or uncertainty are opportunities to flex your motivational leadership muscles, agrees Harvard Business School graduate Beauchamp. Birchbox has 1 million subscribers across the US, UK, France, Spain, Belgium and Ireland and has been credited with creating a brand-new category, the so-called subscription box model. But it has also struggled with explosive competition from deep-pocketed rivals, including the biggest beast in the e-commerce jungle, Amazon, which started a rival service within a year of Birchbox’s launch.

To cope with that kind of challenge requires resilience and agility, and the readiness to admit that you don’t know everything. “As a leader you are not some anointed person with all the right answers. There are always a million answers. What the leader does is choose a destination and then execute. If it’s not panning out then you choose another place to go.”

 
Play the game

Gamification is another trendy topic in the motivation debate. In an age where shop floor workers, senior managers and almost everyone in-between are glued to games such as Candy Crush, it seems only logical to use a bit of game playing to spice up work performance too. US IT giant Cisco is one of many companies to have used game-style challenges to encourage the sharing of knowledge and ideas between its thousands of employees across the globe. By setting goals and awarding virtual prizes to users, the company has boosted the take-up of its intranet – helping to break down inter-departmental silos by rewarding employees who answer each other’s questions with a higher ranking.

“The best aspect of gamification tools is that they are social,” says Heffernan. “It’s a way to say thank you that is easily visible to others. And for low-risk activities they can provide small, immediate rewards.”

But in the long run the novelty of work-oriented games can wane, she warns. “It’s fun to get a star the first few times. But after a few weeks the effect wears off.” 

Traditional remedies

Jenchner, managing director of South East London-based specialist lift business Apex Lifts, prefers to use more traditional techniques with his small but mixed workforce of 120, which includes factory workers, service engineers, salespeople and administrative staff. “You have to listen to people, and really lead rather than just shout. That’s something that I’ve found comes more naturally with age and experience,” he says.

Money alone is not a good motivator – while feeling under-rewarded will demotivate, it doesn’t work the other way round. Generous pay does not produce a proportional boost in productivity.

Spend less, do more

Instead a few cheaper but more creative methods can yield results. “It’s important to look after people’s wellbeing, because when someone is off ill, it can have a really big impact in a smaller business like ours,” says Jenchner. So, at Apex there’s a gym with a personal trainer and a proper kitchen and lounge area where people are encouraged to sit together and chew over shared issues while eating their meals. 

Uncertainty over prospects can breed anxiety and loss of focus, so an important part of maintaining levels of motivation is to make your people feel valued and looked after, agrees Sir Cary Cooper, 50th anniversary professor of organisational psychology and health at Alliance Manchester Business School. “Wellbeing has gone from a nice-to-have to a must-have. Its impact can be profound but you can’t just have a few beanbags and pool tables and some salads in the canteen; that won’t cut it.”

Be positive

Cooper’s top tips for making sustainable improvements in motivation and engagement involve no quick fixes. “It’s not easy – it starts with culture, and with managers who operate through praise and reward rather than criticism. So identify your most socially adept line managers, and train them,” he says. 

Above all, as a leader you have to grow and develop yourself, just as you require others to. “I now have a much more philosophical definition of success,” says Birchbox’s Beauchamp. “Your job is not to get praise from your team but to make sure that they are coming to work happy and motivated.”

It’s grown-up, effective and much more sustainable, but she admits to the odd pang of nostalgia for the days when the wins were simpler and more clearly visible than they are today. “Then it was all about ‘Wow! I just closed this brand.’ Now I pat other people on the back, but it’s much rarer to get a pat on the back yourself,” she says  

Back to articles

In an age where shop-floor workers, senior managers and almost everyone in between are glued to games such as Candy Crush, it seems only logical to use a bit of game- playing to spice up work performance”​

Wellbeing has gone from a nice-to-have to a must-have. Its impact can be profound but you can’t just have a few bean bags and pool tables and some salads in the canteen”​

Superchickens and eggs 

There is also, of course, the vexed question of productivity and the ongoing debate over the link between motivated employees and increased output. One popular approach in recent years has been the ‘Superstars’ model, predicated on selecting the most motivated and productive individuals from across the business and putting them together into hyper-effective ‘dream teams’. 

It sounds like common sense but as CEO turned business author and speaker Margaret Heffernan has noted there are problems with this approach, illustrated by the unlikely sounding ‘superchickens’ experiment conducted by biologist William Muir at Purdue University back in the 1990s. Looking to maximise egg laying in the poultry industry, Muir compared the fortunes of a flock of average egg producers with those of a specially chosen group of super-productive fowl over the course of six generations. 

Deadly rivals

At the end of the trial, the average egg layers were plump and healthy and their productivity had increased. The superchickens, however, had had a bad time of it – only three were left alive, while the rest had been set upon by their flockmates.

The take-home messages for motivation, says Heffernan, are that there is such a thing as unhealthy rivalry, that outstanding individual performances often come at the expense of the whole, and that if you treat people like lab rats (or chickens) then that’s how they will behave. 

“There’s lots of academic research into teambuilding and what matters is not so much the intellectual stuff like IQ, but social skills – how in tune they all are with each other, whether they listen and whether someone is overly dominant in the group,” she says.

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Bridgepoint  |  The Point  |  May 2017  |  Issue 31