New research from Ashridge Executive Education gives fresh insight into what HR teams and managers can do to improve motivation within their organisation

You don’t have to look far today to find business leaders and entrepreneurs pontificating – typically on LinkedIn – about what motivates teams and drives business performance. Some of it is common sense, but mostly it’s based on nothing more than the premise that what has worked for them might work for others. As a result, when a new idea comes along about what motivates teams, which is backed up by academic research, it tends to stand out.

The four shades of engagement
So for the first time, with new research from Ashridge Executive Education, we’re able to examine the link between engagement and team performance. The study, which looked at 28 teams across seven industry sectors, challenges the binary labelling of people at work as either ‘engaged’ or ‘disengaged’. Alongside the zone of engagement (where teams are proactive, solution-focused and mutually supportive) and the zone of disengagement (where teams work is mundane and they work in a negative environment of mistrust), the study found two further engagement zones.

In the zone of contentment, teams coast along, doing the minimum work, going home happy and don’t want to stretch or challenge themselves. 

In the zone of pseudo-engagement, teams play the system to present a rosier view of their performance with their leaders more focused on their managers than their teams. The research found that as many as one in three (29%) of the groups that were put forward as being highly engaged fell into this category and one fifth (21%) overall. 

Managing for productivity
Understanding these four shades of engagement has important implications for those of us who want teams to be consistently motivated and productive.

The first is that the engagement surveys which we typically rely on to measure engagement probably do not give us all the information we need about what staff really think and feel. As a result, managers and leaders need to be careful about how the information harvested by these tools is used.

The second implication is that organisations need to re-educate themselves about the leadership behaviours which can drive up engagement – and therefore productivity and performance – across teams in each of these engagement zones.

The researchers found that whatever ‘zone’ a team is in, the essential factors in engaging teams were: leaders who are trusted and lead by example, leaders who understand the importance of challenging individuals by giving them varied work and leaders who work with trusted colleagues.

Perhaps the most important implication of all is that managers and leaders need a more nuanced approach to understanding what makes their team tick and how they can work together. The researchers share some good detailed insight in their final report, but the additional theme that cuts across their recommendations is how critical recognition and individual feedback is to every team’s success.

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