The Politics of Motivation: Who Really Owns Engagement?

“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” — Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft.

leadership actively encourages engagement can testify to its effectiveness. The basic recipe for ensuring engagement is surprisingly simple, though the ingredients and the precise amounts of each can vary according to the workplace and team. At the very least, any engagement initiative must include these factors, flowing from the leadership to the workforce:

  1. Knowledge of the organization’s strategic goals.
  2. Clarification of the employee’s place within that framework, and why their work matters.
  3. Sincere and explicit encouragement to take the initiative.
  4. Empowerment without unreasonable censure.
  5. A willingness to trust.
  6. Delegation of authority as well as tasks and duties.
  7. A refusal to micromanage.
  8. Respect for the team members and what they do.
  9. Strong leadership through action and example.
  10. Positive motivation in forms advantageous to the team.

The last point arguably represents the most important ingredient in engagement. People are more willing to own their jobs and invest more discretionary effort in them if there’s a payoff involved, though it doesn’t have to be monetary. As Australian-American media mogul Rupert Murdoch points out, “In motivating people, you’ve got to engage their minds and their hearts. I motivate people, I hope, by example—and perhaps by excitement, by having productive ideas to make others feel involved.”

Murdoch’s method seems effective. Though not precisely born into poverty—his father was Sir Keith Murdoch, a successful journalist and owner of the Adelaide News—death taxes and mortgage debt reduced the family fortune to almost nothing after Sir Keith passed away in 1952. Rupert inherited the paper at age 21, and over the next 60 years, he used it as a foundation to build a worldwide media empire consisting of over 800 companies, worth collectively over $5 billion. Today’s business leaders don’t always know as much about motivation and employee engagement.

Lost Chances

According to the spring 2013 National Employee Engagement Study by business analysts Modern Survey, employee engagement levels in the U.S. have dropped to their lowest rates in six years. Almost a third of the 1,000 workers surveyed, 32%, rated themselves as completely disengaged, with only 10% fully engaged and another 22% moderately engaged. The rest identified themselves as underengaged. These numbers are dismal, especially for an era of economic uncertainty like ours, when neither employees nor employers can afford them. What’s happening here?

A huge part of the problem is that about half of all employees (including managers!) simply don’t know what engagement means. No one has ever bothered to explain it to them or pointed out why it matters. Among those who do know what it means—a disappointing 63% of managers vs. 43% of non-management employees—the big issue is that no one really understands engagement’s primary drivers. Worse, most have no idea who bears the responsible for taking ownership of engagement: employees, managers, or senior leadership?

According to Modern Survey, about 8% of workers see it as the responsibility of senior leadership; 36% view it as the job of direct managers and supervisors; 17% see it as purely the employee’s responsibility; while the remaining 39% agree that ownership of engagement belongs to all of the above. That’s heartening, because the last answer represents the correct one. But it still comprises less than half the survey group.

Now, it might seem simplistic to say everyone owns engagement, but that makes it no less true. Obviously, the goal should be for the employee to grab the bull by the horns and take ownership of their job. But too often, front-line workers don’t even know they have the right—much less the obligation—to take initiative and fully engage with their work. Many of those who do realize its importance either feel they don’t have the time to bother, or they just won’t step up and take the chance. It’s up to leadership at all levels to encourage engagement, so workers know it’s not just allowed, but expected.

Many of us have worked for companies with rigid hierarchies and permission-based cultures, so it should come as no surprise that most workers engage only when directly asked to do so (which somewhat defeats the purpose). It’s your duty, then, to re-educate these employees so they realize that you encourage—and prefer—initiative.

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