When you look at all of the stats pointing to the low levels of employee engagement in the US and around the world, you might start to believe that people are naturally lazy and disengaged—or that people wouldn’t work if they didn’t have to.
But that’s not true. In fact, that kind of misinterpretation of the research can lead to assumptions that actually perpetuate disengagement, such as the concept of organizations needing to use incentives, rewards, promotions, praising, perks, status building, pay raises, games, competition, or prizes to get anything accomplished.
Knowing the truth behind the nature of human motivation will not only help you reframe the research and rethink your basic beliefs, it will also allow you to embrace new practices that result in employee engagement and work passion. Let me explain.
People’s Basic Nature is to Thrive
In the 2014 movie Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s character goes into space because she has no reason to live on planet Earth. When circumstances spell certain death, she contemplates giving up. But then we witness her remarkable resilience and creativity as she fights to return to Earth.
As we learn watching the plot unfold in the movie, our true human nature is to thrive by making choices, finding meaning, and developing skills to cope with what the world throws at us. But is that a struggle we have to take on alone? I don’t think so. In fact, I think leaders can greatly accelerate the process by developing strategies to help people experience what every human being needs to thrive: the three psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence.
- Define boundaries people need to know and then help them explore the choices they have within those boundaries.
- Demonstrate you care about people through proactive listening.
- Encourage people to develop new skills on a regular basis. Even mundane work is brought to life when people identify transferable skills they can develop such as learning how to focus, improving people skills, practicing different communication styles, etc.
Nobody Wants to be Bored and Disengaged
People want to make worthwhile contributions. People appreciate meaningful challenges. Two of the world’s leading researchers on motivation, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, wrote a beautiful explanation of human nature*:
“The fullest representations of humanity show people to be curious, vital, and self-motivated. At their best, they are agentic and inspired, striving to learn; extend themselves; master new skills; and apply their talents responsibly. That most people show considerable effort, agency, and commitment in their lives appears, in fact, to be more normative than exceptional, suggesting some very positive and persistent features of human nature. Yet, it is also clear that the human spirit can be diminished or crushed… “
What does this mean for leaders? That it’s important to engage in one-on-one conversations to help people explore their inherent interests, align tasks with their deepest values, and connect their work to a sense of purpose.
Promote Human Thriving
If you believe the high number of disengaged employees reflects a natural state of being, you probably tend to depend on traditional means to fix disengagement—like the incentives, rewards, promotions, etc., I mentioned earlier.
But as you run out of resources and find your workforce is still disengaged, you may need to stop looking for different ways of motivating people and rethink your basic beliefs about human nature and disengagement. Only then will you spark the innovation to develop strategies that promote human thriving—and true engagement—in the workplace.
About the Author
Susan Fowler is a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies, co-creator of the company’s Optimal Motivation and Situational Self Leadership training programs, and the author of the bestselling book, Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.