More than a Microwave

If you are a leader, you probably have had to consider employee engagement and motivation. I was involved in a conversation this week about this, and some of the points made brought me back to some basic business education material: Herzberg’s Motivation Theory. Why? The talk was all about how an extra microwave in the break room would make a big difference in the employee experience. Sorry, it doesn’t really work that way.

Herzberg published his theory in 1959, and it has been a foundational topic in business education since then. Why, then, do some believe that environmental improvements will make a big difference? Maybe because simple changes are quick, easy and cheap, allowing the manager to check the box – “Yes, we did that” – and move on. These leaders should not be surprised, though, when employees don’t bow and say, “Thank you, sir, for the new tables in the employee lounge. I will never leave this company.” Having the right flavors of Doritos in the vending machine may eliminate a demotivator, but it will never drive engagement.

Herzberg’s theory went on to say that there are important motivators that influence people to work hard, including recognition, responsibility, advancement and the work itself. Other leading organizations also use the organization’s mission as a touch point for employees, hoping that the reason behind the work will improve engagement (think pharma: saving and
improving lives). I have personally seen and experienced this in organizations in different industries, and knowing the bigger picture and the “why” behind the work can sometimes be the fuel to help employees make it over the next steep hill.

Pay attention to the basics and eliminate elements that frustrate employees, but understand the limited upside of the efforts. To realize significant results, there will have to be significant effort. Recognition, strong cultures of trust and teamwork and genuinely engaged leaders focused on the needs of the employees will create great results, but these all take hard work. Rest up, re-energize and start the real job of a leader: empowering and engaging employees to deliver on the goals of the organization.

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