by Kerry Patterson | February 16, 2012
For years, scholars have studied employee engagement. Are people eager to do their work, and if not, what will it take to get them excited? On average, corporate surveys report that over half of all employees don’t care too much about the company’s mission or even their jobs, for that matter. Aware of widespread apathy, leaders are keenly focused on ways to motivate the people who work for them. They assume that if their employees only cared about doing the right thing in the right way, they wouldn’t have to manage them so closely, morale would improve, productivity would increase, and bottom-line results would inevitably ensue.

Unfortunately, while employee engagement does result in ample corporate benefits, the motivational methods leaders rely on are often limited in both scope and effectiveness. Many leaders employ energetic speeches, followed by motivational posters and other such fanfare. While these tactics may have merit, an exclusive reliance on high-energy discussions and reminders is far too limited to make any real difference. Other leaders draw heavily on contests, bonuses, and other extrinsic rewards. While rewards inevitably lead to instant motivation, using them in isolation can actually cause long-term problems.

So, when faced with an apathetic workforce, what’s a leader to do?

We live in a rich, complex world that is perfectly organized to yield our current level of engagement and activity. Changing that level of engagement often requires several changes in the array of motivational forces that are currently in place. Most change efforts fail because leaders employ a handful of terrific methods, one after the other over a period of several years. Each individual method is insufficient to alter the motivational landscape enough to create lasting change to motivation.

VitalSmarts studied more than 1,000 people from several hundred companies and found that when leaders use four or more methods of influence in combination, they’re 10 times more likely to create change. Specific forces to consider when influencing employee motivation include: personal, social, and structural. Below are the steps you can take to increase success in motivating employees.

1. Teach skills. When diagnosing what appears to be a lack of engagement, leaders often make the quick assumption that an employee is simply unmotivated, lazy, or apathetic. They take little care to consider whether or not the employee is actually equipped with the skills to do the job correctly. Without the correct training, knowledge, or coaching, even the most motivated employee will quickly grow frustrated, depressed, and unproductive. Simply ask disengaged employees if they have the skills they need to get the job done. If you find they are ill-trained for the job, take steps to get them the proper education for succeeding in their roles. If you find your original assumption was correct and the employee is skilled but simply unmotivated, take the following steps to reengage him in his role.

2. Connect to values. The first place to look when trying to enhance employee engagement or motivation lies in the satisfaction one gains from the task itself. Code writers often love writing code—that’s why they got into the business in the first place. The same is true for many tasks: marketers like writing ad copy, shippers love hitting their target dates, etc. Freeing people of mundane responsibilities so that they can work on the jobs they actually enjoy goes a long way in creating motivation for them over the long haul. Routinely ask people if they enjoy what they’re doing and do your best to match them to their changing desires.

Research on job satisfaction reveals employees are most satisfied when they’re working on a challenging task—uninterrupted. Today, interruptions come with each email, phone call, and text message. When staying plugged in comes at the cost of constantly being interrupted, it can lead to anxiety and job dissatisfaction—particularly when people like their job. So keep interruptions to a minimum. Help people batch their messaging responsibilities and set aside uninterrupted stretches of time where they can happily do their job.

When the task itself isn’t all that pleasurable, people often learn to take satisfaction from the long-term results their contribution achieves. So help people connect to some of the more noble aspects of your company’s mission. For example, when a rush job results in a client meeting an important need, share the positive results with the whole team. When the president receives word that the company’s battery or ladder or jack helped a family avert a tragedy, share the heartwarming story with everyone. You don’t have to be the last person who talked to the customer to be the only one worthy of kudos. Share the wealth of goodwill.

Finally, when it comes to tapping into intrinsic satisfaction, don’t be afraid to connect to people’s values. Leaders have been so badgered to share hard numbers and charts as a way of communicating that they forget to talk about "softer," and yet often more important, aspects of what is going on at work. Don’t be afraid to talk about keeping commitments and hitting goals. When a person stays late to meet a deadline, they haven’t just put in extra hours; they’ve helped your company live up to its promises. When individuals spend countless hours poring over minute details, they aren’t just fastidious; they’re helping you maintain your reputation for reliability. Help people connect their work to their values.

3. Rely on managers and peers. One of the most inexpensive, easy to come by, and yet most rare forms of motivation is an honest word of appreciation from a boss. Too often, managers might think, but forget to utter, phrases like, “Thank you for your good work.” These few words, when delivered genuinely and when it matters, can mean the difference between a satisfied employee and one who feels demoralized and overworked.

Peers also play an important role in delivering daily satisfaction. Where possible, allow people to work with colleagues they enjoy spending time with. After all, people spend more time with coworkers than their own families. With this in mind, make sure you don’t allow harsh, insensitive, “hard to work with” employees to ruin the dynamics of a work group. Insist that people behave appropriately, and if not, remove them from the team. Never underestimate how much damage one person can do to the morale and motivation of an entire team.

4. Use rewards sparingly. Incentives, prizes, rewards, and other extrinsic motivators (used in combination with both social and intrinsic forces) can also represent a powerful source of motivation. But be cautious—large prizes can take the focus off the importance of the task itself. Use extrinsic motivators in moderation and often as the last form of motivation. Let genuine praise and honest sentiments be bigger than the prize. Also, link the reward to the right behavior for motivation that is long term. Finally, use rewards that actually reward. Find out what others (not you) enjoy and reward them with such—not the fly rod you’ve being coveting for years.

Humans are motivated by a variety of sources, both intrinsic and extrinsic. Tap into several sources of influence at once and you’ll increase your chances of success tenfold.

Kerry Patterson is the four-time New York Times best-selling co-author of Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, Influencer, and Change Anything. For more than 25 years, he has served as an expert in organizational behavior, interpersonal communication, and corporate training. Patterson is also the co-founder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and organizational performance. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than 750,000 people worldwide. Visit