The secrets to motivating your staff lie here

James M. Berklan
James M. Berklan

Americans love rewards. Perhaps nowhere else is the carrot-and-stick strategy put to more frequent or hopeful use than the United States. But 6,000 lucky long-term care providers learned how and why there are far better ways to motivate people Tuesday morning at the LeadingAge annual meeting in Boston.

Best-selling author Daniel Pink laid it on the line - vividly illustrating why “if-then” reward scenarios won't cut it for more complex tasks, including eldercare. Revelations he unveiled in a dynamic keynote presentation sent attendees home with simple, homework to better motivate themselves and their workforces. It was one of the most skillful, valuable keynote speeches in recent LeadingAge meeting history.

The three keys to achieving motivation to complete more than just simple tasks are autonomy, mastery and performance.

Autonomy flies in the face of many management concepts, Pink noted, explaining that management techniques evolved only in the mid-19th century as a means to gain compliance. Human beings, however, “don't engage by being managed or controlled. They engage by getting there under their own steam.”

Similarly, he noted that surveys have shown that employees most admire bosses who have high standards and promote employee autonomy. Giving workers sovereignty over their own work can lead to great discoveries and advances, he added. He cited examples of successful firms that grant workers regular periods of free time away from regular job duties to brainstorm and otherwise ponder unscheduled work activities.

“Carve out a tiny island of autonomy” for employees on a regular basis, he urged the attentive crowd of about 6,000. “Don't overdo it” with unscheduled time, he added, while also making it clear that not granting such freedom would be a mistake.

The second characteristic of better motivation - mastery - reflects a desire to get better at what one does. Research has shown that people believe their best work days are when they can see that they have made progress.

Manager feedback is the key, Pink emphasized, calling corporate America a “wasteland” when it comes to providing such evaluations. Numerous progressive companies have recognized that feedback must be delivered far more frequently than traditional times, certainly more often than the annual job reviews some have recently abandoned.

His tips included holding weekly 1-on-1 meetings with employees instead of annual performance reviews. These quick, stand-up affairs plum what the employee is working on and what he or she needs. However, every fourth week, he suggested, a “twist” should be thrown in. Focus instead on what an employee “loves” and “loathes” one month, on perhaps what barriers the employee would like removed the next and then on a discussion about long-term career prospects the next.

He also urged a habit he has adopted: Daily recording of accomplishments so that a tangible archive of results exists after a while. Using the electronic “iDonethis” program or simply writing three things that one did well each day can do the trick.

This is how progress can be seen and realized and, therefore, a sense of mastery can evolve. 

The final concept Pink focused on was sense of purpose. Work is enhanced when workers can see “why” they're doing what they are doing. Sounds simple, but walls blocking this enlightenment still exist too often. This concept can be manifest by cooks seeing who is standing in line for their food, for example. Quality increases when they see the end goal/recipients.

“People need to see the impact of the work they are doing,” Pink stressed.

The “why” factor cannot be overestimated, he emphasized. Too often managers will engage in “how” discussions -- either instructing how something should be done or otherwise pestering workers with how they were going to approach a task.

The why behind a job or task is the pathway to greater motivation, Pink repeated time and again. And with that, he presented listeners with a homework challenge he characterized as modest enough to be easy to accomplish.

The task? Have two fewer “how” conversations per week with employees while holding two more “why” conversations in the same period.

And then he reminded once more that the route to gaining more motivation -- and thereby a more fulfilled workforce -- lies with getting away from “if-then” rewards suitable for only simplistic goals. Also, allow employees more autonomy and help them know WHY their work matters.

He said people may ultimately want to make a difference but on a day-to-day basis they want "to make a contribution." In senior care, there's nothing more important than every employee knowing if he/she doesn't show up one day, someone will notice and care.

James M. Berklan is McKnight's Editor. Follow him @JimBerklan.


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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.