The Key to Motivation: How to Keep Employees Engaged

Motivation is key. Successful business owners, CEOs, and key executives understand that, in order to achieve progress, they need their employees to be motivated. It is impossible for companies and organizations to succeed with insufficient internal motivation and engagement. But how do you keep employees engaged?

As a Vistage Master Chair and a retired CEO, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with various CEOs and key executives about their own experiences with disengaged employees and attempts to achieve motivation in the workplace. Typically, the most common questions I receive from leaders in these positions regarding motivation are, “How come my people are not engaged?” “How do I motivate my employees?” and “How do I compensate or incentivize my employees to perform?”

Through my experience with my Vistage NYC groups, I understand what employees need from their leaders and executives in order to both become and remain engaged at work.

First off, it is important to acknowledge that money is not an effective motivating factor in keeping employees engaged. One of the most common mistakes CEOs and business leaders make is thinking that money is what is standing between engaged and disengaged employees. While it’s true that employees who do not feel they are being compensated accurately or fairly for the work they are doing are more likely to become disengaged, such as in the phenomenon of “quiet quitting,” money will not make a disengaged employee suddenly become engaged. It is a myth that money will increase engagement within the workplace.

Incentives such as bonuses or perks may work momentarily, but they are fleeting and do not last. Unless a business leader wants to be offering constant, repeated bonuses for improved performance, employees will not be engaged. Plus, there is a large chance that this sense of motivation within employees will run out over time, thus leading to employees becoming disengaged yet again.

The only employees bonuses and perks will affect positively are those who are already subscribed to the rat race, according to leadership expert Dr. Lee Thayer. Dr. Thayer, in his book “Leadership: Thinking, Being, Doing,” says that “Motivation and incentives don’t work in the long run. And they seem to work reliably only with the kind of people who have already bought into the rat race. They seem to work best with people who intend to do only as they are told but who expect to be rewarded for even trying.”

For employees who are feeling drained and disengaged, unhappy with the rat race and the never-ending deadlines, tasks, and competition, incentives and bonuses will be unsuccessful in motivating them to care more about their work and to work harder.

Evidently, incentives and bonuses serve only to reward employees with weaker work ethics and a sense of self-importance rather than those with pride in their company and work. This will not help a CEO, key executive, or business owner achieve an engaged workplace. Rather, it will solely act to perpetuate the idea that workers deserve to be rewarded for the bare minimum and that, in order to be engaged, employees must be compensated additionally each time they go above and beyond, which is simply unrealistic. Furthermore, it reduces the idea that employees should strive to work hard because they care about their work and the progress of the company overall.

Throwing money at employees won’t make them care about the company, the industry, or their work. The only thing that can do this is a firm understanding and belief in the great and worthy purpose, values, and culture of their organization.

Another way that employees can become engaged is through learning, growth, and development. Working on mastering one’s craft, trying to improve the quality of their work, and becoming better day by day is how employees can become more motivated and more engaged. This can result from a specific, individualized learning plan. With a learning plan, employees can compare themselves to where they used to be and where they’re going, which can serve as adequate motivation for improvement. They also will be able to understand clearly what’s expected of them and what their goals for the future are. This is how leaders and managers can keep track of their performance and reward them when appropriate and when applicable.

According to an article by the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Edward Deci and hundreds of other researchers and studies have found that there are three universal psychological needs, as opposed to the beliefs typically founded by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. These psychological needs are autonomy, relatedness, and competence. In order to increase engagement, employees and leaders must focus on promoting these three needs within the organization. This can be accomplished by allowing employees to work on tasks they are passionate about. More than anything, it’s important to focus on increasing competency.

Similar to the three psychological needs, Dan Pink, in his book “Drive,” states that the three key drivers of motivation are mastery, autonomy, and competency. Furthermore, Pink also states that the key to engaging employees is providing them with the opportunity to become more competent. The positive effects of increased competency are innumerable but include contributing to happier, more productive employees who live longer.

Furthermore, employees have been shown to improve when faced with leaders who reflect the levels of engagement they’d like to see. For this reason, employees need to have a leader who believes in these things and models them accordingly. Thus, if you desire to see increased motivation and engagement in your workplace, you should demonstrate yourself what active engagement and passion for a company’s goals look like.

An increase in competency for employees means growth, and growth is what provides progress. Therefore, it is crucial that, in order to increase motivation in a workplace, employees are provided the opportunity to grow, both personally and professionally. Thus, the best and only way to successfully motivate employees is to provide them with a learning environment in which they comfortably become more competent and, therefore, more productive over time. This often can look like a supportive structure in which employees can learn, grow, and continue to master their respective skills and roles.

Bottom Line:

It can be difficult for business leaders to find effective ways to motivate their employees and keep them engaged. However, this can be done in a number of ways, some of which include learning plans, comfortable learning environments, and leading by example. Incentives and bonuses have proved to be ineffective, except for employees who don’t subscribe to the values and morals of the organization.

When employees are engaged, however, the benefits are innumerable. My Vistage NYC groups help business leaders learn how to keep employees motivated so that they can strengthen their companies and be the most successful they can be.