Motivating the demotivated

Apathy can manifest itself in various ways. Often the relationship between manager and employee is vital, as is hiring the right worker in the first place. Be careful not to focus too much on the disenchanted, says Jenny Keefe

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Where did it all go wrong? You seemed perfect for each other. The passionate and ambitious interviewee who wanted to advance within the company and deliver results. And you, the employer they’d always dreamed about, forward looking and offering a highly competitive package.

But somewhere along the line the laughter stopped. They stopped turning in reports on time and those sick breaks became longer and more frequent. So how do you put the spark back into your relationship once demotivation has kicked in? Dissatisfaction is rife: a Work Foundation survey in 2004 showed that 15% of the workforce are either dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their jobs.

The recently published Bonjour Paresse, or Hello Laziness, by French electricity company worker Corinne Maiera, meanwhile, is a guide to "the art of doing the least work possible for your employer". The manual, which dispenses pointers such as "carry a pile of files around all day to appear busy" may have been tongue-in-cheek but it captured the spirit of active disengagement creeping into organisations.

One source of this unhappiness is a lack of control. Nick Isles, associate director at the Work Foundation, says: "What we found in our research is that high performance organisations are where people have a greater sense of autonomy over how, when and where they do their job."

The think tank’s survey also found that 80% of self-employed people are very satisfied with their jobs, but just 64% of other full-time workers feel satisfied. Other motivation killers include a breakdown in the relationship between employee and manager, or an unclear or unfair relationship between performance and reward. Apathy can manifest itself in various ways. "The three main indicators of demotivation are: higher levels of absence, [which is] one of the clearest indicators that your workforce has a problem; not getting as much productivity out of workers when they are at work; and higher rates of turnover," explains Isles.

For Dr Reinhard K Sprenger, author of bestseller The motivation myth, diagnosing dissatisfaction is straightforward: "Just one answer: staff don’t laugh anymore. If you enter a certain company and you hear people laugh you know there is a high level of trust. If they don’t laugh then there is a high level of distrust. If people laugh and have this balance between concentration and having some fun then it’s okay." And the bad news is that, once the rot sets in, there are no quick fixes. Sprenger reckons that before jumping on the latest wonder cure benefits scheme, organisations should first concentrate on eliminating demotivation.

"Companies throw money on incentive systems instead of investing in the leadership capabilities of their leaders. The motivation is decided in the relationship between manager and employee. "As far as I can see, there is not a single study worldwide which can demonstrate a lasting performance increase via incentive systems. Benefits are just part of the game [so] you should not overload these things with the expectation that they increase motivation. On the other hand, I have the feeling that these demotivate people because all reward undermines the interest which is concentrated on the work itself."

Anne Bruce, author of the book Motivating employees, says that unfortunately, efforts are doomed if employers really have hired a bad apple. "A person has to have a desire to want to be motivated because the bottom line is that we are all motivated to do something. Maybe it’s being motivated to lay on the coach and watch the television or maybe it’s being motivated to find a cure for cancer.

That’s why hiring for attitude and training for skill is critical because if you hire someone with a bad attitude then good luck, zebras don’t change their stripes." She also warns of the danger of focusing on the disenchanted few, at the expense of organisation’s top employees. "Let’s say you have a work group of ten people and you have two people that always cause problems. So what does management do? They spend all their time focusing on those problem people. And what happens to the superstars? They become discouraged because all the energy is going into those two people." But, all is not lost. Though benefits may not be the miracle drug that many consultants would have you believe, they are a key part of the motivational mix.

"The starting point is to do an audit to find out what’s working in your organisation and what’s not. Using staff survey reports from HR, you can then focus on the different issues and look at the benefits that are best for different people in their careers and lifestyles. "Performance-related pay within particular organisations can help with motivation. Allowing the employee to have some negotiating rights about how and when they do their job will make them feel more motivated," says The Work Foundation’s Isles.

Security is an essential ingredient for satisfaction. "Benefits that help reinforce a sense of security, things like time off on the payroll, say the employer values you and wants to keep you. This can help to keep people motivated and engaged." He adds that, because Britain’s long hours culture is a major cause of stress and health problems, flexible working programmes and benefits such as childcare can help to turn things around. A case in point is the National Health Service (NHS). "Public sector organisations tend to be in areas of front line service, and in organisations that are public facing there are higher levels of stress," says Isles. This is why the NHS Improving Working Lives initiative was brought in, aimed at overhauling an organisation with a notoriously bad track record for motivation.

Alexandra Bediako, HR Manager for Tavistock & Portman NHS Trust, has been working with Improving Working Lives to bring in schemes such as childcare support, flexible working and carer leave. She stresses that happiness is almost impossible to measure. "All you can do is ask generally what staff thought about the workplace in staff questionnaires."

But she believes morale has definitely improved, adding: "Culture is made up of lots of different things and one of those is how an organisation shows its staff they are valued, which benefits would come into." So, when rekindling the fire between employee and employer, the emphasis is on marriage counselling rather than a bunch of petrol station flowers. While high street gift vouchers won’t win back a world-weary worker, changes at the heart of an organisation just might.

Case study – Manchester City Council

Barely a day goes by without the media featuring some tale of low morale in the public sector. Beset by paperwork and target setting, government workers can get to the point where they decide to switch to a private employer. But there is light at the end of the tunnel, says Caroline Powell, HR Manager at Manchester City Council.

She has worked for the local authority for 20 years and reckons demotivation is on the decrease. "It is difficult to say from my ivory tower in the town hall – you don’t see people out working on the streets on a day-to-day basis – but the feeling I get is that people are very committed." While benefits can boost morale, Powell adds that, for many, working for the council is its own reward. "Staff at all levels do understand that we are working for all the people of Manchester.

The Commonwealth Games was a huge effort for everyone across the council and I don’t think we’ve lost that." She adds that chatter is important. "[We] have a good communication strategy in place. Uncertainty around change makes people demotivated and we are making a conscious effort to manage change." High workloads and discipline problems can kill motivation for teachers so the authority introduced the Manchester Bond, which offers accommodation near the city centre and provides financial incentives for staff in inner city schools.

The council also promotes flexible working for all staff and has introduced an award ceremony for top employees. Powell adds that keeping motivation levels up is essential because the private sector is not the authority’s only competitor for staff. "People who live in surrounding suburbs can quite easily change where they work from Manchester to Cheshire County Council."