Got Unmotivated Staff? Here’s What To Do.

Just Zilch is New Zealand’s longest-running ‘free store’. Since 2011 they’ve been on a mission to rescue food, serve the community and help the planet. Their store recovers food that would otherwise have gone to waste and makes it available to hundreds of people a day. There are no screening criteria for customers. They simply ask that people are mindful and “take just what they need”.

With a team of about 100 volunteer staff, as at July 2022, they’ve done 392,703 transactions and removed more than 7.16 million food items from the waste stream. Their Managing Director Rebecca Culver is an incredibly humble leader who constantly emphasises why the organisation exists. Having met her several times over the years, she has always struck me as self-effacing yet passionate about what the organisation is doing. She draws people to rally behind her as she’s constantly communicating how Just Zilch benefits people in need, while also honouring and respecting them as individuals.

When Just Zilch won the best not-for-profit organisation in their 2022 local business awards, Culver was quick to acknowledge the entire team and the effort they put in every day, which made the award possible. One of the many volunteers said in a behind-the-scenes video that being at Just Zilch “makes me feel useful and wanted, which we all need!”

Whether staff are volunteers or paid employees, it’s important they feel inspired and aligned with their organisation’s vision. When colleagues feel united towards a common goal they up their discretionary effort and will literally go the extra mile for you.

In his book, Start With Why, Simon Sinek outlines his golden circle model which has ‘why’ at the centre, explaining that people don’t care what you do, they care why you do it. When you’re clear on your ‘organisational why’, and your staff understand their own motivations, and these two things align, you’ll have a highly engaged team. This is critical for a strong team dynamic and deep sense of belonging, as well as boosting individual wellbeing.

Connecting with a compelling ‘why’ on an emotional level, drives employees to perform at their peak. We all want to do meaningful work. Leaders need to clearly and consistently communicate the ‘why’ to each team member and show them how they contribute to end outcomes. This fulfils our innate desire for a sense of purpose.

How do you feel about work?

When researchers asked people, “When you wake up on a Monday morning, which of the following best describes how you most commonly feel about the week ahead?” 

  • 12% said they were excited and can’t wait to get started
  • 29% said I don’t feel great but work is an unavoidable part of life
  • 6% It’s a terrible feeling knowing the working week lies ahead.

It’s so important that people enjoy, if not love, what they do for work. It’s concerning that 6% (about 1 million people in Australia and New Zealand, and 10 million in the United States) say they feel terrible when they picture the week ahead.

When asked, “If you won the lottery and received a massive inheritance of several million dollars so that all of your financial needs were taken care of, which of the following best covers what you would do with your current employment situation?”

  • 50% would leave
    • 23% to never work again
    • 27% to find a new job
  • 50% would stay
    • 33% would stay but work less hours
    • 17% would continue as before

So a majority of people would continue working in some capacity, but only one in six people would continue full time in their current role.

Based on the workplace culture you create, how many of your staff do you believe would be committed enough to stay?

What Really Motivates Your Staff?

It’s important to understand what motivates people. Behavioural economist, Dan Ariely, says “When we think about how people work, the naïve intuition we have is that people are like rats in a maze. We really have this incredibly simplistic view of why people work and what the labour market looks like.” 

He explains that when you study what actually motivates staff, there’s a lot more at play than just money. We’re also driven by the meaningfulness of our work, others’ acknowledgement and the amount of effort we’ve put in. The harder the task, the prouder we are.

Seeing the fruits of our labour makes us more productive

Ariely did a study where he invited people to build Bionicle Lego characters. They were paid $3 for the first one, then $2.70 and so on in reducing increments of 30 cents and could stop at any point. 

Group One’s models were stored under the table once completed. Group Two’s were disassembled in front them as soon as they were built. 

Group One completed 11 models on average, while Group Two only completed seven, even though they were being paid the same amount. 

Seeing their work being undone before their very eyes had a highly demotivating impact. They felt their contribution was futile (even though the other group also knew that the models would all be disassembled later). Ariely concluded that people need to see the results of their labour – even for a short time – to motivate their performance.

The less appreciated we feel, the more money we want to be paid

In another study, MIT students were given a piece of paper filled with random letters. They were asked to find and circle identical pairs of letters. Each round they were offered less and less money to complete a page and could stop at any point. They were split into three groups:

  • Acknowledged – these students wrote their name at the top of the page and when they handed it in, the experimenter looked at it briefly and said “Uh huh” before putting it in a pile. 
  • Ignored – these students didn’t write their names on the paper and when they handed their work in, it was immediately placed face down on a pile without being looked at. 
  • Destroyed – these students didn’t write their names on the paper either. They watched as the experimenter took their page and immediately put it through a shredding machine.

The results showed that those whose work was ignored or destroyed before their eyes were far less motivated to continue. The people who watched their work be shredded needed twice as much money to keep going as those who had their work briefly acknowledged. Those in the ignored group, needed almost as much money as the destroyed group.

Ariely concluded that ignoring people’s performance is almost as bad as shredding their effort before their eyes. “The good news is that adding motivation doesn’t seem to be so difficult. The bad news is that eliminating motivation seems to be incredibly easy.”

Knowing you’re making a difference for others increases unconscious motivation

Organisational Psychologist Adam Grant led a study at a fundraising call centre at the University of Michigan. He had call centre staff spend 10 minutes speaking to recipients of the scholarship they were raising funds for. A month later, those call centres staff were spending 142% more time on the phone and generating 171% more in donations. The callers, however, said that the conversations with recipients hadn’t changed their actions or motivations. 

Grant concluded, “It was almost as if the good feelings had bypassed the callers’ conscious cognitive processes and gone straight to a more subconscious source of motivation. They were more driven to succeed, even if they couldn’t pinpoint the trigger for that drive.”

The harder the project, the more rewarding it is

Ariely did another study where he gave complete novices origami paper and instructions to build what he describes as a ‘pretty ugly form’. He then had a second group create the same form, but with several key instructions missing, which made the task more difficult and resulted in an even uglier product. For both groups, those that made the form and bystanders were asked how much they would pay for the finished product. 

The results showed that those in the first group that built the form would pay five times as much as bystanders. In the second group, this difference was exaggerated further. Builders of the uglier models valued them even higher and bystanders valued them even less.

This shows that how we value our work relates to the effort we’ve put in. It also shows that we tend to assume that others will ascribe the same value to our work as we do.

Key takeaways for leaders

  1. Know and clearly communicate your ‘why’ as often as possible, in ways your team can relate.
  2. Ensure staff can see the fruits of their labour. Celebrate success.
  3. Take the time to acknowledge your teams efforts – people always do more of what they’re praised for.
  4. Ensure team members know the difference they’re making for the end customer. Have systems in place to feed comments back on a regular basis.
  5. Ensure your team have tasks that challenge them and bring a sense of satisfaction.

What motivates you at work?

What steps will you take this week to boost motivation among your team? 

Drop me a line, I’d love to hear from you.

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