Best Practices

Motivating the Middle

By D. Christopher Kayes
Dean’s Research Scholar and Associate Professor of Management
Author of Destructive Goal Pursuit: The Mount Everest Disaster and the forthcoming books, Learning Directed Leadership and Contemporary Organizational Behavior in Action.

Photography: Abby Greenawalt
Published: Spring 2011

Bill, a newly minted MBA, is quickly learning the challenges of motivating the six employees who report to him. High-achieving Bill has discovered that not all employees share his enthusiasm about growing the consulting business he now leads.

He tried motivational techniques he heard about at seminars. By his own admission, they seemed like silly tricks better fit for Michael Scott, the awkward manager from the TV show “The Office.” Bill is representative of many managers who begin with enthusiasm but find themselves frustrated by employees who lack their drive and ambition.

In work with hundreds of leaders over the past decade, my colleagues and I have witnessed countless people like Bill. The challenges middle managers face are not exclusive to one industry; nonprofits, government and private industry share them.

How do managers like Bill motivate employees neither at the top nor bottom of the organization, but in the middle?

Don’t rely on external rewards

The “don’t focus on pay” advice seems counterintuitive. Organizations spend millions of dollars each year to enhance their compensation systems. Programs that tie pay to organizational outcomes, such as pay-for-performance and Balance Score Card, have proliferated—and for good reason. Pay incentives motivate people.

But Eric Winslow, a professor of management at GWSB, has studied motivation for decades and he has found that pay only motivates in the short term. This is consistent with the findings of pioneering motivational researcher Fredrick Herzberg. Higher pay or improved working conditions do not bring long-term behavioral changes in employees.

Individuals only stay motivated when they can develop themselves, receive desired recognition and learn new skills. The focus, therefore, must be on long-term factors that improve motivation.

A growing stream of research supports the notion that learning is a key factor in motivation. Studies show that even when individuals are paid more for completing work, they may be less motivated if their work is considered unimportant by others, or if the work is intrinsically unfulfilling.

Reflecting back at mid-career, one of my former students recalled when he was fully engaged in his work: when was learning a new procedure, during medical school and his residency when his profession held mystery and when he was teaching young residents how to be more effective. In other words, he was most motivated when he was learning or helping someone else learn.

Learning builds confidence by improving one’s self-esteem. Confidence and self-esteem allow individuals to explore new ideas, take small but important risks and develop new strategies for problem solving. Learning also has a physiological effect as it makes new connections in the brain. The challenge for managers is to identify the activities that stretch employees in the middle to learn at the same time the managers avoid assigning tasks that are too difficult or likely to result in failure.

Managers like Bill quickly learn that not all employees are motivated by the same factors. Our research and experience with managers reveal five distinct, but related, learning-directed activities that motivate people.

  • Achievement-oriented activities require making a unique contribution. They include activities such as creating a way of looking at a problem, launching a new project or generating new ideas.
  • Team-oriented activities involve working with people, learning from others and contributing to the larger organization.
  • Affiliation-directed motivation may lead individuals to more fully consider their contribution to the larger organization.
  • Goal-directed activities are most closely linked with direct incentives for performance. Goal setting focuses individuals on specific skills and areas for improvement. Motivating activities include improving performance, learning a new skill or targeting specific behaviors.
  • Power-directed activities increase an individual’s span of control, letting them gather more resources and wield influence over others’ work.

Putting motivation into action

GW professors worked with a major custodial bank that sought to attract, motivate and retain middle managers. Collaborating with one of the bank’s leadership teams, we devised a program that built on existing strengths of both the organization and the employees. That program:

  • built on the organization’s overall incentive and retention strategy and how a particular department could contribute to the larger organization.
  • created an understanding of basic human motivation in identifying the needs and concerns of employees. A personalized development and retention plan was devised for each employee. Managers learned to understand the one-of-a-kind motivational profile of each person who directly reported to them.
  • helped managers work with one another to improve systems that boost employee motivation and engagement.

A sustained and comprehensive effort, not a one-shot speech, incentive or pat on the back, is required to motivate employees. Bill, our fictional manager, can begin to motivate by offering his employees an opportunity to take on challenging and exciting assignments, addressing their individual motivational profiles and building an organizational culture that values learning.