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Nick Lee

Aston University's Business School

Professor of Marketing & Organisational Research

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Talking Point: Is motivation the secret to employee engagement?


Employee engagement appears to be top of the agenda for today’s enlightened HR manager.

It seems that, at every turn, there are consultants and articles in the business press telling us how to create an ‘engaged workforce’ and how much benefit such a workforce will have on your bottom line.
Naturally, business academics have also had their say on the subject and there looks to be a growing body of evidence linking it with critical organisational outcomes such as employee performance, organisational citizenship behaviours and even corporate financial performance.
As such, it is not surprising that a lot of organisations are willing to invest heavily in engagement-led initiatives as it is starting to look like the ‘holy grail’ of HR. But is it really?
Following on from our work with employee motivation consultancy, Motiv8 Solutions, we are attempting to take a step back from the hype in order to explore, in general terms, what is really meant by ‘employee engagement’ and, in particular, to understand how it relates to another key concept that is comparatively overlooked: employee motivation.
One of the big problems with employee engagement is the lack of consistency between how many people think about it and the academic work that has been undertaken in the area. Most research tends to begin with a definition first introduced by Kahn in1990, however.
This definition states that engagement is a state in which employees ‘bring in’ their personal selves when undertaking their work tasks.
Situational engagement
The latest studies show that this engagement can consist of physical, cognitive, and emotional aspects and proposes that engaged individuals invest personal energy in, and experience an emotional connection with, their work.
However, the most commonly used measures of engagement such as the Gallup Workplace Audit or the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale focus on the existence of positive work conditions such as rewards, feedback, task significance, development opportunities and clarity of expectations.
We could describe this as situational engagement, in that a given employee is engaged by the work environment, although not necessarily by the work task. In this sense, situational engagement is a macro factor concerned with creating a positive work environment that, it is hoped, will lead to higher performance.
But because creating situational engagement is likely to cost organisations money, it is of interest to see how it relates to motivation. Motivation is a key influencer on human behavior and, in fact, some form of motivation is essential to all behavior, whether the basest of instinctive responses or the most complex of organisational tasks.
Of course, this begs the question of how the concept of engagement differs from the concept of motivation. Unfortunately, academics have had little to say on the subject and it is a bit of a ‘black hole’.
Interestingly, however, we’re also not the first ones to notice this gap – Macey and Schneider mentioned it in their work entitled ‘The meaning of employee engagement’ in 2008.
It is useful to think of engagement as a situational idea though as it helps to separate out the two concepts. It also points to the fact that the most effective organisations should not simply focus on creating an engaging environment, but also on how they motivate people at the task level.
Motivation refers to the direction, intensity and persistence of voluntary actions that are goal-directed. It might seem at first glance that, if employees are engaged, they also must be motivated to perform.
Intrinsic motivation
Therefore, it is not surprising that engagement is typically associated with staff performing tasks more effectively. But it is not the case that employees with high levels of situational engagement are always motivated and nor is it the case that motivated employees are always engaged.
As is the case with engagement, employees can also vary in their motivation levels. But they can likewise vary in their orientation, or type, of motivation, which is a distinction not covered by engagement theories.
The orientation of motivation concerns the underlying goals and attitudes that influence you to take action – in other words: why are you performing?
The most basic distinction here is between intrinsic motivation, which is about doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable such as the challenge of making a sale, and extrinsic motivation, which is about doing something because it leads to a separate outcome such as a performance bonus.
On the surface at least, situational engagement may share many similarities with intrinsic motivation – the idea is that if you create an engaging environment, employees should, in theory, enjoy their work more. Yet this is not always the case.
Take the example of a teacher or nurse. They may be highly intrinsically motivated by their role, perhaps because they love being able to interact with and care for others. Yet, it is completely feasible that their work environment may not be particularly engaging – or even actively disengaging.
On the other hand, employers may provide as many engaging features as they can, but if a given employee does not gain pleasure from or feel challenged by their job, they are likely to be unmotivated (at least in an intrinsic sense).
High performance
In simple terms, comfy chairs, kind leaders and long lunch breaks will not change the nature of the job itself. If an individual hates making cold calls, a nice seating set-up won’t help.
When it comes to extrinsic motivation, the situation is similar. Extrinsically motivated employees perform their tasks for the rewards that they receive. So, for example, they might aim to hit their call target each day simply to get a bonus rather than because they are in any way engaged with their working environment.
Equally, no matter how engaging that environment is, if the performance rewards on offer are not motivating, they will not direct their efforts appropriately.
Another key consideration in this context is the role of goal-setting in motivation. It is not only important that people are motivated to perform, but also that their efforts are concentrated in the correct area.
One potential flaw in current engagement theories is that they tend to assume engaged employees will naturally ‘want to’ perform in the correct way.
The question is, while employees may be highly engaged in their work, will it necessarily produce the desired results? Without the necessary direction, any extra effort may be misplaced. This is just one example of how our understanding of motivational theories can help inform work on engagement.
So, in conclusion, we would argue that, rather than focus their efforts solely on tracking situational engagement and assuming that high scores equate to positive organisational performance, HR leaders would be better advised to concentrate just as much – if not more – on understanding what motivates people in their organisations to perform highly.
They might just be surprised by the answers.

Nick Lee is professor of marketing & organisational research at Aston University’s Business School, and Alan Lee is doctoral candidate in work & organisational psychology at Aston University.

4 Responses

  1. Use their managers

    I go along with much of what is said in this article but would suggest that HR analysing what motivates people is unlikely to change much, particularly at a macro level as motivation varies at individual level. Surely better for HR to get managers to realise how important it is to understand what motivates people as individuals and look for ways to get the best out of them. That will drive individual motivation, engagement and results but HR cannot do it alone they need to work on the management culture.

  2. The daily beatings will continue until morale improves

    Some managers don’t ‘get’ engagement.  Nor do some leaders.

    Some managers can’t bring themselves to surrender what they see as low-level control over their employees.  They don’t want the dynamic they’ve known all their working lives to change.  Me boss, you minion; I say jump, you ask how high – that’s how it works.

    But when you’re working with a group of people who you expect to be smart, to use their own initiative, to solve problems, old-school management doesn’t work.  At all.

    Some people can’t grasp that if people are happy, they wll do a better job.  Not just pay-check happy, but genuinely enjoying what they do and how they do it.  To some people, these is completely counter-intuitive – why would you want to enjoy work; I mean, we have to pay you to do it, right?

    Some managers don’t want the work and effort that comes with knowing your people, and trying to arrange it so that people’s exposure to the stuff they enjoy and are good at is maximised.  Balancing this against cross-skilling, and training to avoid key-man dependencies is quite a lot of work, and some people don’t have the knack, or the inclination to do it right. 

    And when your managers aren’t motivated, the chances of their staff being engaged is vanishingly small.

  3. “One potential flaw…the correct way”

    Thank you, Nick and Alan. I found this  an interesting article for its insights and, even more interestingly to me, its hints at deeper underlying assumptions that may go nearer the real problems. Late on the piece, much of which resonated well with me, you write,

    "One potential flaw in current engagement theories is that they tend to assume engaged employees will naturally ‘want to’ perform in the correct way" 

    This sentence contains two big assumptions that deserve exploring.

    First I don’t think it is a flaw that people want to do their best and I wonder what evidence supports the assertion? I think that people do naturally want to do and be the best they can most of the time, especially when they feel confident and respected. (please read on before disagreeing or feeling that I’ve missed the point!)

    Sadly, many people have unnaturally suffered at work by being treated so unnaturally, without enough respect or compassion by managers. Those managers themselves have been similarly so mistreated from their own earliest employment and education, that they believe these mistaken notions that people do not “naturally” want to do and be well. It is a very vicious circle, but one that can be changed to a very positive virtuous spiral with mindful leading.

    If we want to radically improve things, I think it’s may help to distinguish between the innately ‘natural’ and the culturally learnt. I think people can slowly unlearn culture and learn new ways that are more harmonious with our innate nature if we are prepared to gently persevere together with respectful reflection and dialogue about our our joint and personal assumptions. It may not be easy at first, but it quickly gets easier and brings immeasurable benefits.

    I also wonder about the second assumption. Who is to say what "the correct way" is? How is an employee who wishes to do and be their best supposed to behave if they don’t feel "the correct way" is the ‘best’. I infer a pair of core and huge conventional management assumptions here that:

    1. There is "a correct way" and

    2. ‘Management’ always know what "the correct way" is and that employees should comply with it. This is pure "The One Right Way", FW Taylor’s (un)Scientific Management.

    My experience is that:

    1) The more engaged people are, the more they seek and find ways that best create real, sustained value for the customer, their colleagues and their organisation and community and seek to continually improve those ways.

    2) "Management" is often the least engaged group of all the stakeholders, failing to listen enough to employees and customers because they mistakenly believe that they themselves are the organisation instead of just another group of powerful employees in the community. 

    At the same time, I am wary of assessing or attributing engagement more or less to any particular group label. A more useful question for those keen to increase people’s engagement may be, "How can we engage more of each person’s attention, goodwill and enthusiasm more of the time?"

    Any person’s engagement with anything will depend on a host of dynamic factors. Some factors will change moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day. Other dynamic factors will vary over much longer periods, depending on new knowledge and awareness, practice and perseverance, on different opportunities .

    At almost any single moment, there will always be forces competing for one’s engagement and attention. There are happily a few occasions when the state of "flow" occurs, when a person transcends those competing forces and becomes and stays utterly absorbed in their task and purpose for a while. It’s a fantastic feeling that is both the ultimate state of engagement and something that engages people towards trying to experience it again.  A skill of a good leader is to appreciate that and to support people to sustain their engagement and attention wisely to everyone’s mutual benefit. It’s not complicated, but it takes continual care, practice and personal engagement.   

    Tips for engaging people have been around since communities first formed and do not need extensive research, academic debate or regression analysis (though if they did, Gallup’s 12Q should more that suffice). My quick list incudes.

    Respect people. Actually love and respect them. Plato described love as  the longing for mutual belonging.

    Ask what they think. Listen to what they say. Act on what you hear,so they know you really heard them.

    Ask and look how they are feeling.

    Appreciate the good things they are doing. I mean really seek those good things out and think about how they are doing those things you value and the value those things create. Ask yourself how you are heping and hindering them. 

    Thank them often.

    Invite people to be curious and wonder with them regularly about the true purpose of the organisation and together you contribute to achieving that purpose and what more you could do.   

    Be fair and share with people communally the fruits of their joint labours (but don’t show contempt for them by trying to bribe them individually with bonuses).

    Help them to get immediate, non-judgemental feedback.

    Trust them and show that you do.

    Enable and encourage them to develop their awareness and skill.

    Apply each of these simple principles as much to how you look after yourself as to how you look after yourself.

    Invite people often (more than weekly) to eat together with you and very strongly encourage them to eat with other and others when you cannot be there. Very strongly discourage people from skipping lunch or eating at their desks.

    Do not preach about your corporate values. Better to act your value out as best and as often as you can and ask the people around you to identify them and how they value your values.

    But, read and study Gaullup’s "First Break All The Rules". At £8.99, the best evidence-based OD investment one can make.    

    Do not use the existing system of which you are part as your excuse not doing any of the above.

    Listen, watch, feel, sense.

    Keep doing it." 


    — Jonathan Wilson 07971 018921 Humap UK

  4. Engagement

     Good comment by Nick Lee.

    Various studies have indicated that motivation is affected by encouragement, appreciation, acknowledgement rather than money and managers would do well to factor this into their relationships with their staff.

    In our AMC2 Wellbeing Corporate Diagnostic audits, as well as looking at wellbeing, stress and psychosocial risk factors we ask reputational questions.  These give an indication of employee engagement and the resulting focus groups can be very interesting!

    Ann McCracken Director AMC2 Vice President ISMAuk

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Nick Lee

Professor of Marketing & Organisational Research

Read more from Nick Lee