Engagement and Leadership: Follow Up to HR Happy Hour

The discussion on the HR Happy Hour hosted by Steve Boese focused on employee engagement and leadership. Broadcasting from the HR Florida conference, the show featured Cathy Martin and China Gorman. The discussion focused on the question of how to get employees engaged in their jobs and in the strategic direction of the company. One answer was that, while companies have traditionally focused on tactical moves to get employees engaged, what they really need to do is win the hearts of their employees. To do that leadership, based on ethics and values, and leaders who “walked the talk” were critical. But I don’t think I really heard any “how to’s” in that discussion. And I am not sure if there is any universal set of “how to’s”.

Geoff Colvin, in his book Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, talks about where the passion comes from that makes someone be a world class performer. His discussion really became one of motivation and whether world class performers were extrinsically or intrinsically motivated. Of course we all know there has been a ton of verbage written about that. My belief is that we all have an inidividual genetic make up that predesposes us to do some things better than other things. Then extrinsic factors take over “motivating” us to use, or not to use, those genetic “talents.” Those that get motivated or rewarded to use those talents have the opportunity through what Colvin calls “deliberate practice” to then turn that talent into world class achievement.

This makes me wonder if the discussion of engagement and leadership boils down to a discussion of extrinsic motivation providing a situation that allows intrinsic talents and interests to take over. Is engagement just motivation theory in a different guise?

What do you “practicing theorists” out there think? Help me develop my thinking. Leave comment or comments, it is easy to do.

6 thoughts on “Engagement and Leadership: Follow Up to HR Happy Hour”

  1. You ask a great question. There is so much talk about leveraging the intrinsic motivations of the team to get business results yet most companies still fall back on tactical incentives to drive behavior.

    Here's my take…

    Good managers (and companies) hire for culture fit first and foremost. That means looking for specific traits and historical performance that shows you can and will mesh with the rest of the group. From there, managers need to work with each individual to determine what it is they "like" to do – and what they are good at. When those things can be the same – bingo – you have an employee who wants to do what they do well and will do it within the culture of the company.

    Tactical incentives (extrinsic rewards) should only be used for specific behaviors that need to be guided based on changes in the business environment. Layering extrinsic rewards on top of a persons innate motivations have a habit of suppressing their internal drive.

    So to answer your question directly – No – engagement is not just a new dress on an old motivation theory. Two very different issues.

    The concept of deliberate practice isn't motivational in nature – it is skills-based. In other words, I can increase my skill level through deliberate practice. That "may" drive some internal motivations as I see my competency improve but if I hate what I'm doing – but do it anyway for 10,000 hours – then I will become expert at it – regardless of my personal motivation.

    Motivation is something the individual has inside them – not something a manager or company can "do to" anyone. Managers must create an environment where one is motivated (allowing them to use the skills they good at and enjoy) but they cannot motivate me.

    At the end of the day incentives are simply decision architecture tools. Provide a system through which I decide to play or not – that doesn't really get to the core issue of what intrinsically gives me pleasure and feelings of accomplishment.

  2. Paul:
    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree with you on hiring for culture fit. I have seen it work. I have seen it fail too, when they hired for what the thought was the culture.

    A question for you however. Don't you think there has to be internal motivation in deliberate practice. I find it hard to believe that someone would do something for 10,000 hours if they hated doing it. They may dislike the particular task, but the thought of being the best pitcher, the best violinist is what drives them. That outcome, that glory, that moment in the spotlight is the motivation.

  3. Interesting questions Mike. I'll speak first about my own motivations then about what I see in the workplace. For me, I am someone who is intrinsically motivated. There is very little a reward or incentive can do to make me want to perform a certain task. Conversely, I can also work successfully in an environment where I am not being valued or challenged because I have the motivation to find my own niche and MAKE a valuable contribution somewhere. I think there are a lot of people out there like that. Sure, it's nice to be rewarded and I can do far greater things in an environment that recognizes strong performance. But, I don't have to have it in order to do well.

    In the workplace, I agree with Paul when he talked about people who can increase skill through deliberate practice without being very motivated. I see that all the time. For many, work is a paycheck. That is the motivation. So they will trudge to work and put in their time doing a decent job at a task they are really not motivated to do. These people are not engaged, they are just going through the motions for money.

    I get frustrated when we want to give people candy, cookies, free lunches, etc. in hopes it will make them more engaged. Why are companies still missing the boat on this? Don't they see that is just throwing money away and not making anyone feel valuable. If more managers would show sincere interest in employees, engagement would increase.

  4. Mike,

    At Publix, which I know you are familiar with, the culture is so ingrained that is almost normative – we are in business to provide the best shopping experience to our customers.

    In my case, working in a support function, I am responsible for ensuring that the environment which helps create that great shopping experience remains in place.

    We are pasionate about our mission, and generally achieve it through the basic blocking and tackling of supervision – hiring good people, telling them what they are supposed to do, expecting them to do it, rewarding them when they do, listening to and dealing with legitimate concerns, coaching to correct shortcoming, and ensuring they do not remain a part of the company if they can't accomplish those tasks.

    Of course, there are other things that help, employee ownership being on the Great Place to Work list, fancy training programs, etc, but in the end, it is strong values, a clear vision, and execution that makes us the company that we are.

    I suspect that is true for any organization. If you are strong and healthy with the basics, you will also be strong and healthy with the extrinsic and intrinsic niceties as well.

  5. You're right Mike – many companies (I'd go as far as to say top managers) have one idea of their culture and the rest of the group have a completely different idea of culture. It does fail when those two points of view differ.

    As to the deliberate practice – I just wanted to point out that true intrinsic motivation shouldn't be judged by functional competence.

    I would agree that many if not most experts want to be expert – and put up with the deliberate practice in order to achieve that goal – that is their drive, their motivation. The practice is the "necessary evil" to achieve their goal. In many instances the fact that the goal is "recognition" means it isn't an intrinsic motivator in the first place. It's extrinsic – social validation.

    I wanted to point out that we can't use the fact that people are experts as evidence of what motivates them. Think of a person on an assembly line – they may have 10,000 hours shooting screws and be expert at a specific function due to that practice. They may be a mentor for others in that area – but in reality – they'd rather be painting pictures of doe-eyed children to line old hotel walls.

    What we are expert at, what we spend time doing isn't always indicative of what we would love to do when no one is looking.

    We need to dig and discuss and talk about what really is someone's true passion. Figuring out what that employee loves doing – and love doing enough to add up to 10,000 hours AND supports the needs of the organization is the key job of a good manager.

    I may be picking nits here but I have seen managers pick someone who is good at say HTML and put them in charge of the company web site when in reality they would much rather be a trainer or a teacher of HTML versus a practitioner.

    Does that make sense?

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