Of Incentives and Life: What really motivates?

By Mike Cook for BBJ

It probably doesn’t need to be said but just to set the stage for what follows; employee engagement lingers at around 30% of workers feeling fully engaged in their work. That likely seems very low, and it is, but let’s not be too quick to assume that it is easy to label the cause for this measurement.


Gallup, no doubt the best known among companies claiming expertise in this area defines engaged employees as “those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace”, for the sake of this discussion let’s go with the Gallup definition of engagement.


Employers struggle with how to raise the overall level of engagement in the workplace, utilizing a variety of methods to capture the underutilized productivity that is indicated by current engagement levels, and why not? Unfortunately for employers it is very hard to determine how much of the engagement equation is controlled by them and how much is a function of workforces made up of people who would really rather be doing something else or are simply unwilling to do what it might take to find work that is more satisfying.? By this I mean to assert that many people in the workplace are not doing work they really enjoy or love doing, they are working at whatever it takes to provide them and their families with their preferred lifestyles.


There are of course companies that take advantage of the fact that many if not most employees “NEED” employment. If you are interested in exploring these employer practices I’d suggest reading a recent book by Jeffrey Pfeffer, ‘Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance – and What we Can Do About It.In this book Pfeffer reports that in one survey, “61 percent of employees said that workplace stress had made them sick and 7 percent said they had actually been hospitalized. Job stress costs US employers more than $300 billion annually and may cause 120,000 excess deaths each year…”


But let’s assume that if you are an employer and reading this that you are not among employers that create working conditions such as those described by Pfeffer in his book; you are authentically looking for ways to improve employee engagement and grappling with how to incentivize employees in that direction. Not all incentives are created equal, nor are they all equally appealing or cost effective.


Some years back I consulted with a company that wanted to both change the level of engagement and performance of a group of employees providing customer service. Historically, this group of employees was focused on answering customer questions and offering solutions to service issues. The company wanted to add to the job responsibilities of the service representatives and have them begin to sell add on products when customers called in. The company made its desires known and set up objectives and monetary incentives to encourage the desired performance. The initial results indicated that their community of customers services representatives were not very good sales people, despite hours of training on selling techniques and the incentive to earn more money. As an outside agent we looked at the situation, the training was sound, the products were attractive and reasonably priced, what’s more the engagement levels of the service reps were declining. In surveying the group of employees involved we determined that money was not a primary driver for this group of employees as assumed by the company management. What then was the issue? As it turned out, the majority of service reps were not their family’s primary wage earner, their incomes were supplemental. What was discovered to be of primary importance was employment that offered 1) The opportunity to help people with problems, 2) a living wage, and 3) regular hours with little to no overtime. An incentive that was more attractive to this group was the opportunity to earn paid time off to be used to spend more time with the family. The employer, realizing that the value proposition, while untraditional, offered this opportunity to achieve their objectives without having to replace a number of employees.


If you are an employer you may have a similar situation, one that is ripe for a non-traditional approach such as the one we suggested in this case. If your workforce is older you might try flexible work schedules or job sharing. If your workforce is younger and are raising families you might offer both flexible work schedules, earned time off and a very non-traditional opportunity such as the newly opened Parenting Academy, which offers programming for families with children of all ages. What is likely more stressful than new parents managing two incomes and learning how to parent at the same time. Think about it, talk about it, don’t get stuck thinking that all your employees will be incentivized or motivated by what makes you tick.


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