The key to motivating people isn’t what you think. Wendy Frew speaks to Jason Fox about how we got employee engagement back to front.
The interminable round of meetings that never seem to achieve anything is a phenomenon well-known to office workers. Meetings are often held by default and can give birth to follow-up meetings and breakfast meetings until it seems as if the meetings themselves are an alternative to work.
It’s what motivational expert and leadership and change management expert Dr Jason Fox calls “the pantomime of busyness” and it’s just one of the many things that happen every day in the modern workplace, sapping enthusiasm and stalling productivity.
Conventional theory dictates that if you want to motivate staff and drive productivity, you need to change employee attitudes and beliefs, or increase incentives and rewards. But increasingly, says Fox, those methods are irrelevant to the modern workplace where creative and conceptual work takes time and can’t be easily measured.
However, there is a third way. Fox is part of a new breed of management and behavioural scientists who say the answer lies in the work itself. People such as US management guru Daniel Pink and Columbia University social psychologist Dr Heidi Grant Halvorson say that if our jobs are inherently interesting, or if we can see they are contributing to something bigger than ourselves, we are more likely to work hard. And it’s our managers who can influence our behaviour by designing better jobs.
“I think most of us have things back to front,” says Fox. “We try to motivate people from the inside out. We look at attitudes and goals and beliefs, and assume that something has to be fixed inside.
“I think that if you want to fix motivation, you fix the work. You design the work to be inherently motivating. This is what we call motivation design.”
After completing his undergraduate studies at Perth’s Murdoch University, Fox undertook a PhD in self-efficacy and goal attainment, which he completed in 2010. At the time, he was lecturing at several universities and noticed some of his students were struggling with exams. So he started holding lectures for students about how they could cope better under exam pressure. High schools heard about his work and invited him to speak to their students, and from there he joined the motivational speaker circuit.
But he thought some of the ideas he heard from other speakers were dangerous and outdated, and that’s when he decided to share what he knew about the science of motivation on a professional basis.
Fox argues that the old tool kit for motivation – things such as SMART goal setting where goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based – might work for some people and some situations. But when it comes to higher levels of management and leadership, we need to go beyond that.
Increasingly, machines will do work in higher orders of complexity. So how do we do the kind of work that can’t easily be replicated by machines?
Motivation design calls on managers to design jobs that are stimulating and inherently rewarding. As we move into what is now being described as the conceptual age – where workers need skills, such as design, storytelling, empathy and curiosity guided by the right hemisphere of the brain – managers need to automate or eliminate simple, repetitive and boring tasks, says Fox. He also advises managers to keep meetings to a minimum, avoid excessive reporting and shield staff from unnecessary administration and emails.
Even when staff are focused on their primary task, enthusiasm might wane. But Fox warns managers not to assume the problem is a lack of staff motivation.
“Ask yourself if there is some other reason why they aren’t hitting their goals. Ask yourself if you have been clear about what behaviour you want from them. Don’t use vague words such as ‘be strategic’, ‘be agile’, ‘be collaborative’.Everyone nods when they hear these phrases, but no-one really knows what they mean.”
Managers need to think deeply about what could be triggering unwanted behaviour. Has the project created friction with other staff? Has a project team received clear and timely feedback on work already done? Have the goalposts changed?
“Remove motivation from consideration – it’s a distraction – and instead ask yourself what’s helping or hindering your people. This is much more important than cute clichés and throwaway motivational statements.”
“Managers need to shine a light on meaningful progress, the things that otherwise would not be noticed or measured, but which are ultimately really important.
“It’s important for all of us to understand what meaningful progress is or you can be swept up in a delusion of progress. A state wherein we are busy, efficient and productive, but neither effective nor progressive.”
Fox agrees that, even in the best workplaces, no-one will be motivated all the time.
“That would be hard to sustain. Rather, assume that people are motivated, but don’t rely on motivation. In other words: design work for low motivation.”
If the behavioural science is clear that in modern, white-collar workplaces the old-fashioned carrot and stick approach to motivation doesn’t work, why do most companies insist on using it?
Many companies are locked into short-term goals because of the need to regularly reward shareholders, says Fox. Also, everything about the modern workplace is getting faster and many people feel time-poor. “We tend to stick to those things we know how to do, that we know have some kind of track record of success, and we don’t take the time to explore the alternatives.
“Yes, there’s risk in exploring new ways of doing things, but you can control that by doing small and manageable experiments.”
So what motivates the man who says that he wants to “liberate the world from poorly designed work?”
It pains me that some of the world’s best people are being held captive to outdated notions of productivity,” says Fox.
“Some might say I’m obsessed, but it is the allure of undiscovered possibilities that fascinates me. That’s why I do what I do, to help the people who make a difference.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of HRM magazine.
Discover the future of HR with the world’s leading speakers including Jason Fox, Lynda Gratton and Toby Walsh, at the AHRI National Convention and Exhibition at the Melbourne Convention and exhibition Centre from 28 to 30 August 2018. Registration closes on 21 August.