I hope everyone got a chance to read Heather’s awesome blog on employee engagement yesterday. It’s a topic that has been much on my mind the last two weeks (it is a current research topic for me). As Heather mentioned, there is a huge employee disengagement problem going on right now and it has had a profound financial impact on organizations. Even worse, disengagement tends to erode morale, negatively impact team dynamics, and threaten innovation.
In my research on this topic, I frequently find references to the book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink. Drive looks at what motivates us to be high performers and achievers; it isn’t what you’d think. According to the sociological experiments cited in the book, higher pay isn’t the great motivator it is thought to be. In fact, for tasks that demanded a higher level of cognitive skill, higher pay produced a poorer performance. Who knew??
Pink lists basic things we need: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Whether at home or at work, we need these things to stay motivated—to feel in control of our own lives, to create and learn new things, and to feel that we are making a difference in the world.
I was struck by this passage:
“The most successful people, the evidence shows, often aren’t directly pursuing conventional notions of success. They’re working hard and persisting through difficulties because of their internal desire to control their lives, learn about the world, and accomplish something that endures.”
This is a spot-on assessment, at least in my experience. Have you known people who were never satisfied for long with any job, even jobs that provided many opportunities for professional growth and development, even if they liked the job and their co-workers, and even if they had a decent salary, because they wanted, but didn’t necessarily need, a higher salary? For many of us, money is the only measure of success and we think it is what we need to be happy. I’ve known people to go from job to job in search of ever more money because that was the only need they focused on, at the expense of their other needs. No matter how much we feel our skills are worth, sometimes a job that meets those three basic needs Pink mentions is where we will be the happiest, most productive, and most engaged, and where we will find the type of contentment that money can’t buy.
This being said, I will freely admit that the need for autonomy is sometimes the most difficult need to meet. I have spent the last decade and a half working in libraries—a field that offers many opportunities to learn and endless intellectual rewards but few financial ones (I know you thought librarians were in it for the money, right??). What made me stay in those jobs where I barely made enough to cover rent was my dedication to the overall mission of libraries and my desire to make a difference in the lives of others. However, I have had to turn down a few jobs that I felt I would have loved because they didn’t pay the minimum I needed to support myself. This almost certainly would have ended up making me not love those jobs eventually. Being adequately compensated is a must before you can focus on your other needs.
Mastery and purpose come more easily if a) you are compensated with what you need to take care of yourself and your family and b) you have a leader who will help you meet these needs by providing opportunities for growth and learning and who will instill a real sense of the organization’s mission. These needs have been easier for me to meet, typically. Even in jobs I didn’t like, I still felt driven to acquire and master new skills and was always driven to do the work in a way that would cause me no regrets down the road. My purpose in any job is always tied to my own personal goals of doing my best and learning new things, whenever possible. But with bad leadership, it’s difficult to maintain a high level of engagement, no matter your personal work ethic because your basic needs won’t be met. If you have a leader who can help you align your personal goals with the overall mission of the organization, as well as encourage you to hone your skills, you’ll find yourself not only engaged at a high level, but performing at a high level.