What really gets employees fired up? Hint: It’s not an ‘atta boy’
  • leadership
  • Blog post

What really gets employees fired up? Hint: It’s not an ‘atta boy’

No doubt you’ve heard that managers – both in HR and elsewhere in the organization – should “show some love” to employees if they want to encourage their best efforts.

And that’s true … as far as it goes.

But a surprising research study shows that demonstrations of appreciation from managers, while they do increase employee engagement, are less effective at it than other kinds of positive events that are also within managers’ control.

The study was done by Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School and independent researcher Steven Kramer. They collected 12,000 diary entries from 238 professionals in seven companies over a period of several years.

Three types of ‘events’
In this extensive study, employees diarized about three main types of events at work that they saw as positive forces, making them happy and increasing their determination to give of their best.

The researchers classified the three kinds of events as:

  • “Nourishing.” These included shows of respect, encouragement or appreciation from a manager or other authority figure.
  • “Catalytic.” These took place when employees were given resources or training that enabled them to improve their performance.
  • “Progress.” These occurred when employees were able to move forward on a project or accomplish something meaningful.

What worked
If you followed the pure logic of managerial appreciation, you’d say that the “nourishing” events were the most effective at floating employees’ boats.

But in fact, the study found that they were the least effective.

On employees’ best days – the days when they reported going home happy – their diaries showed a heavy preponderance of progress events.

The distribution of events on those happy days broke down like this: 76% progress events, 43% catalytic events, and just 25% nourishing events.

Conversely, employees’ worst days were the days when they suffered setbacks, the opposite of progress. On these days, employees cited setbacks 67% of the time.

Action steps for managers
What does all this mean for managers?

First, let’s be clear about what the study doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean managers should suddenly refrain from praising employees who have merited a pat on the back. Encouragement still works, especially when it’s sincere and timely.

The study’s results do mean, however, that if praise is the only tool managers use to motivate and engage employees, they’re missing some big chances.

Here are three action steps that the study suggests managers can take:

  • Find out whether nagging resource issues are holding people back, and address them where possible. It may surprise you how often fixable computer glitches or small equipment malfunctions can weigh on employees’ minds and productivity. Or how often a lack of knowledge or skill that feels to the person like a major hindrance can be addressed in just an afternoon of training.
  • To create and/or capitalize on feelings of progress, meet with each employee and help them identify milestones on the path toward their goals. Then as they hit these milestones, celebrate their incremental successes. You don’t have to throw a party; sometimes a handwritten note is enough. (Note: Here you’re leveraging a “nourishing” event to underline a “progress” event!)
  • To minimize the effect of setbacks, let the employee know you noticed and are sorry the setback happened. Then start getting the person back on the path to progress by setting a new milestone that is achievable. And of course, monitor their efforts to hit that milestone.

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