Talking Point: Is motivation the secret to employee engagement?by
Employee engagement appears to be top of the agenda for today’s enlightened HR manager.
It seems that, at every turn, there are consultants and articles in the business press telling us how to create an ‘engaged workforce’ and how much benefit such a workforce will have on your bottom line. Naturally, business academics have also had their say on the subject and there looks to be a growing body of evidence linking it with critical organisational outcomes such as employee performance, organisational citizenship behaviours and even corporate financial performance. As such, it is not surprising that a lot of organisations are willing to invest heavily in engagement-led initiatives as it is starting to look like the ‘holy grail’ of HR. But is it really? Following on from our work with employee motivation consultancy, Motiv8 Solutions, we are attempting to take a step back from the hype in order to explore, in general terms, what is really meant by ‘employee engagement’ and, in particular, to understand how it relates to another key concept that is comparatively overlooked: employee motivation. One of the big problems with employee engagement is the lack of consistency between how many people think about it and the academic work that has been undertaken in the area. Most research tends to begin with a definition first introduced by Kahn in1990, however. This definition states that engagement is a state in which employees ‘bring in’ their personal selves when undertaking their work tasks. Situational engagement The latest studies show that this engagement can consist of physical, cognitive, and emotional aspects and proposes that engaged individuals invest personal energy in, and experience an emotional connection with, their work. However, the most commonly used measures of engagement such as the Gallup Workplace Audit or the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale focus on the existence of positive work conditions such as rewards, feedback, task significance, development opportunities and clarity of expectations. We could describe this as situational engagement, in that a given employee is engaged by the work environment, although not necessarily by the work task. In this sense, situational engagement is a macro factor concerned with creating a positive work environment that, it is hoped, will lead to higher performance. But because creating situational engagement is likely to cost organisations money, it is of interest to see how it relates to motivation. Motivation is a key influencer on human behavior and, in fact, some form of motivation is essential to all behavior, whether the basest of instinctive responses or the most complex of organisational tasks. Of course, this begs the question of how the concept of engagement differs from the concept of motivation. Unfortunately, academics have had little to say on the subject and it is a bit of a ‘black hole’. Interestingly, however, we’re also not the first ones to notice this gap - Macey and Schneider mentioned it in their work entitled ‘The meaning of employee engagement’ in 2008. It is useful to think of engagement as a situational idea though as it helps to separate out the two concepts. It also points to the fact that the most effective organisations should not simply focus on creating an engaging environment, but also on how they motivate people at the task level. Motivation refers to the direction, intensity and persistence of voluntary actions that are goal-directed. It might seem at first glance that, if employees are engaged, they also must be motivated to perform. Intrinsic motivation Therefore, it is not surprising that engagement is typically associated with staff performing tasks more effectively. But it is not the case that employees with high levels of situational engagement are always motivated and nor is it the case that motivated employees are always engaged. As is the case with engagement, employees can also vary in their motivation levels. But they can likewise vary in their orientation, or type, of motivation, which is a distinction not covered by engagement theories. The orientation of motivation concerns the underlying goals and attitudes that influence you to take action – in other words: why are you performing? The most basic distinction here is between intrinsic motivation, which is about doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable such as the challenge of making a sale, and extrinsic motivation, which is about doing something because it leads to a separate outcome such as a performance bonus. On the surface at least, situational engagement may share many similarities with intrinsic motivation – the idea is that if you create an engaging environment, employees should, in theory, enjoy their work more. Yet this is not always the case. Take the example of a teacher or nurse. They may be highly intrinsically motivated by their role, perhaps because they love being able to interact with and care for others. Yet, it is completely feasible that their work environment may not be particularly engaging - or even actively disengaging. On the other hand, employers may provide as many engaging features as they can, but if a given employee does not gain pleasure from or feel challenged by their job, they are likely to be unmotivated (at least in an intrinsic sense). High performance In simple terms, comfy chairs, kind leaders and long lunch breaks will not change the nature of the job itself. If an individual hates making cold calls, a nice seating set-up won’t help. When it comes to extrinsic motivation, the situation is similar. Extrinsically motivated employees perform their tasks for the rewards that they receive. So, for example, they might aim to hit their call target each day simply to get a bonus rather than because they are in any way engaged with their working environment. Equally, no matter how engaging that environment is, if the performance rewards on offer are not motivating, they will not direct their efforts appropriately. Another key consideration in this context is the role of goal-setting in motivation. It is not only important that people are motivated to perform, but also that their efforts are concentrated in the correct area. One potential flaw in current engagement theories is that they tend to assume engaged employees will naturally ‘want to’ perform in the correct way. The question is, while employees may be highly engaged in their work, will it necessarily produce the desired results? Without the necessary direction, any extra effort may be misplaced. This is just one example of how our understanding of motivational theories can help inform work on engagement. So, in conclusion, we would argue that, rather than focus their efforts solely on tracking situational engagement and assuming that high scores equate to positive organisational performance, HR leaders would be better advised to concentrate just as much – if not more – on understanding what motivates people in their organisations to perform highly. They might just be surprised by the answers.