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Struggling to motivate? It’s all in the mind

Yesterday we were asked about introducing an attendance bonus to encourage employees to attend for work. I am always a bit wary of attendance bonuses because they have a habit of backfiring, but I agree that having a strong motivation to come to work is desirable.

Oddly, for most employees (sales people tend to be the exception) money has a very short term positive impact and tends to demotivate quite quickly, so employers may find they get the opposite effect to what they’re hoping to achieve over time. There is also the risk that if a driver is disabled and therefore not able to attend for work, having such a bonus is indirectly discriminatory.

I generally suggest considering offering flexible rewards. Consult with the employees and see what they would find most beneficial. You could make cash or vouchers part of it, but other options might be more appealing to employees. Other rewards include earning points toward tangible items or services, extra time off, tickets to sporting or other events, electronic devices or extra paid holiday. Making the rewards part of a broader assessment of productivity which includes compliance, performance, customer satisfaction and attendance is also helpful.

Motivating employees is rarely an easy task. Like our clients many managers think of money, as the most obvious way to do it. Money is a figure that appears on your bank account screen, not a physical thing to have and cherish. People always like to get a bit more of it, but for a lot of workers it doesn’t motivate in the long-run.

Reporting for the CIPD, Jan Hills carried out a series of neuroscience experiments to find out what causes people’s brains to work at the optimum level. The approach looked at dopamine and serotonin levels for the two stimuli that motivate the human brain:

"moving towards something to satisfy primary needs like water, food, and social connection; and"
"moving away from or avoiding threats which could cause harm"

Although designed to help our brains identify more basic threats and opportunities, the two hormones were very active in workplace scenarios as well. Various stimuli like a dissatisfied boss, a low performance rating without support going forward or inequality in the recognition of effort, all had significant negative effects on motivation.

The results suggested that the brain finds a lot of things rewarding, and it depends on the individual. This really isn’t that much of a surprise. It has to be different strokes for different strokes. Money certainly had its role to play, but autonomy, competence, a sense of purpose, basic needs, social connections and recognition scored highly in motivation too.

This perhaps is partly attributable to the rise in open-plan work environments. People working in individual offices don’t have the same social environment in which to shine, whereas those in an open plan room are more easily part of a team, have good reason to perform well with team mates, and their failings (and a dissatisfied boss) are more likely to be seen by other peers. It is vital that people receive equal recognition for playing an equal role in success, and that no one person becomes the hero (or alternatively) the scapegoat. This is important from an employment law pint of view as well, as treating someone less favourably without lawful evidence to back it up could lead to a discrimination claim.

Interestingly the research suggested that it wasn’t necessarily the reward itself that was the most important motivator, it was how the reward was delivered.

The moral of the story is that managers shouldn’t just ask “What can we give people to motivate them?” They should also be asking “How can we facilitate people’s autonomy, relatedness, purpose, and competence?”

To conclude with some experiences from my working life........ If you want to cherish your employees a highly valued benefit is health and lifestyle advice. One of our clients paid to have a nurse come in once or twice a year and each of the employees could spend up to half an hour discussing health issue privately, having blood pressure taken etc. It was a very popular offering and had a big takeup, but the cost was fairly low.

Lastly, personal recognition a major motivational factor. Having a private word about specific work well done, rather than a general pat on the head (metaphorically speaking) carried enormous weight motivationally speaking.

Russell HR Consulting provides expert knowledge in HR solutions, employment law training and HR tools and resources to businesses across the UK.

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