Beyond Bonuses: Motivating Your Managers

BusinessWeek's Matthew Boyle recently wrote a column discussing the need—and the effort—to keep managers motivated in tough economic times. The premise that middle managers must lead the effort to motivate employees, especially when there is less money available to do so, is sound. Still, my two decades of experience in advising companies on how to identify, implement, and capitalize on their core values tells me that companies will have to go deeper than the programmatic efforts Boyle lays out.

Programs, policies, and even gift cards, no matter how generous, are born of a tired old paradigm that relies on one-way (read: top-down) communication. What really motivates employees and managers is two-way communication—knowing that they are being listened to, and feeling that they have a stake in the game.

As Boyle rightfully notes, middle managers are the key to maintaining an engaged workforce. They set the tone in their workgroups and serve as the bridge between strategy and performance. But as a group, middle managers are typically the most frustrated group of employees in any company. In conducting values assessments for more than 100,000 employees and managers, I've repeatedly heard from middle managers who feel squeezed and underappreciated for the difficult tasks they are expected to perform.

And yet, as Boyle notes, motivating them is crucial if they are expected to keep their team members engaged and productive. But "motivation" needs to be more than just an amorphous theme, especially in these pressure-cooker days. Motivation is only possible when the foundational steps that help create a healthy culture are in place. Therefore, it can't be addressed only with "programs." Effectively engaging middle managers requires some sense of who they are and what truly motivates them as people.

Connecting with Employees

In conducting values assessments in a variety of corporate settings, I've observed interesting trends in what actually motivates employees. First, organizations always benefit from truly understanding employees' personal values. Organizations should not only assess the personal values of their people, they should also make it very clear and public that what their employees feel and think matters. What they'll soon discover: Employees in most American corporations embody values of commitment and a desire to feel connected to the organization and their peers.

Managers also need to feel committed and understand the context of their work. One of the most de-motivating comments I have ever heard came from a midlevel project manager who said that in her organization "success and failure feel the same." She never knew whether her work contributed to the team's success, or, if she underperformed, she was never advised how she could improve.

It's no surprise that, when we ask managers about their sense of the current culture, we usually get an earful about challenges in implementing processes and inconsistent work systems and policies. Few things can de-motivate managers faster than frustration about getting their work completed and feeling helpless to effect change. Managers need to feel they have some control over their own destiny.

Finally, when we ask employees what they consider essential for their organization to achieve high performance, they rarely mention strategic objectives such as innovation or deeper customer relationships. Instead, they usually bemoan their inability to feel connected, and produce a wish list of "open communication," "teamwork," and "employee appreciation." The smart leader will listen to what they have to say. Before managers can get on board with strategic values, they need to believe that their work is appreciated and that they are being heard.

Ask and Ye Shall Motivate

The fastest way to motivate employees and managers is to engage them. When employees and managers feel that they are appreciated and can air their concerns candidly—and without fear—their motivation is always higher.

Ask managers what they need to succeed. Ask them how the company can help them be their best, especially when they are feeling low themselves. Acknowledge their discomfort and let them know that senior leaders are aware of the difficult situation they are in and that their work is vital to the company's long-term sustainability.

And go even further: Involve them in the process of addressing problems. Though they won't expect that every suggestion or idea they raise will be adopted, managers will respond with heightened motivation to a senior management team that values their opinions and the assurance that they can raise questions or concerns without fear of retribution or embarrassment.

When senior leadership acknowledges that their managers may have the best view of how to handle their specific domain, those managers can emerge as the key to maintaining workforce morale in tough times.

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