919.608.3208 (call or text)

Drea Zigarmi is a founding associate and Senior Consulting Partner for the Ken Blanchard Companies; a trainer, management consultant, speaker, and author, including coauthor of Leadership and the One Minute Manager, with Ken Blanchard. Some of Drea’s recent work includes research on employee engagement and motivation, stating that “Motivation is a skill that can be learned – once you know how.”

Susan Fowler, a colleague of Drea’s at Blanchard, has written a book entitled Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does. When it comes to improving employee engagement, Fowler believes that leaders are spending too much time trying to fix disengagement after it occurs instead of questioning approaches to motivation that may have led to it in the first place.

In working with leaders, Fowler stresses not to wait until people have become disengaged before taking action. Instead, begin at the source of people’s engagement journey: their personal appraisal of their work environment. Recognize that on a daily basis, people are appraising their workplace and coming to conclusions on whether they feel safe, positive, and optimistic about the environment, or threatened, unsure, or fearful. These appraisals lead to conclusions about well-being, intentions, and subsequent behavior.


“A leader’s role is to help people manage their appraisal process now so that people get on the path to employee work passion rather than the road to disengagement,” explains Fowler. “Every day is an opportunity for leaders to help individuals shift their motivational outlooks. Day-to-day motivation holds the key to long-term engagement.

According to Fowler, a primary reason engagement initiatives haven’t been as successful as hoped is that leaders do not understand the role motivation plays in the engagement process. That, and the outdated beliefs leaders have about motivation. “For many leaders, motivation techniques are pinned to entrenched, deeply rooted beliefs and values that haven’t been actively explored,” explains Fowler. “For example, what if I told you the latest research shows that a focus on results doesn’t necessarily yield the best results?

“I think many leaders are afraid of changing traditional methods of motivation because they are worried about how people might react. However, our experience has been that when leaders are exposed to proven best practices and develop skills to use them, they are more inclined to move outside their comfort zone and try an alternative approach.”

Looking Beyond Work

And while Fowler is currently focused on improving the way leaders go about shaping a motivating workplace, she believes these same ideas need to be used in all areas of our lives.

As she explains, “We have become expectant of receiving praise, rewards, or prizes if we do well-for example, if I graduate from high school with honors, I get a new car; or if I get an “A,” I get a smiley face; if I make a mistake, I get a big red checkmark or a frowning face.”

At work, and as a society, Fowler believes we are being shortsighted by the way we use rewards and punishments.

And while many of the organizations Fowler works with sense they need different approaches to motivation, they don’t have good alternatives. As a result, big motivational opportunities get turned into small “do this, get that” transactions.

As Fowler explains. “For example, you set up a health program: ‘Between now and some date in the future, we want to see how much weight we can lose.’ You set up the parameters and the support to help make that happen. Then you add: ‘And whoever loses the most weight will win an iPad mini.’

“What you’ve done by throwing that external award in at the end is sent a message: ‘We don’t think you can or want to do what’s best for yourself, so we’re bribing you to do it.’ You have also taken people’s attention off the bigger goal of improving health. And, sadly, you have diminished the good feeling among employees that, ‘My organization so genuinely cares about my health and well-being that they have put a program in place to help me lose weight.’

“If you add the iPad, you need to make sure that you are not just saying, ‘Do it for the iPad.’ You don’t want to distract people away from or dilute the more important motivation messages such as, ‘We care about you. We care about your family, your longevity, and your being healthy and productive.’ If that happens, you’ve just undermined the very thing you were trying to do.”

Guidelines for Getting Started

Fowler recommends that whenever leaders are having conversations with their team members, they: keep in mind why people might be motivated to do, or not do, what is being asked of them; find ways of satisfying deeper psychological needs. Fowler suggests focusing in six key areas.

  • Encourage autonomy. Give people options. Even when you are discussing deadlines, frame them as useful information for achieving important goals rather than ways for applying pressure.
  • Deepen relatedness. Appreciate the vital role emotions and feelings play in creating connection. This interconnectedness is something we all long for.
  • Develop people’s competence. At the end of the day, it’s not just about what a person accomplishes; it’s also about what they are learning and how they are growing.
  • Promote mindfulness. Prompt awareness of options that a person may not have considered. Ask open-ended questions to help individuals see options and rise above old, unhelpful patterns of behavior.
  • Align with values. Help others align their work to meaningful values that generate positive energy, vitality, and sense of well-being.
  • Connect to purpose. Few things in life are more powerful than acting from a noble purpose.


Good for Others-Good for You Too!

As a leader, manager or coworker, when you are helping other people thrive in the workplace and flourish, it helps you as much as it helps others. One of Fowler’s favorite testimonials from her book is about a senior executive who adopted this mindset and said that she was excited about how she could teach these behaviors to others. She was really surprised when she realized she was the biggest beneficiary of her new approach.

The quality of people’s day-to-day motivation is the source for the quality of their engagement. For best results, intervene earlier and use more effective and enduring approaches to motivation. You’ll be surprised at the impact you can have as a leader when you meet deeper and more satisfying needs.


Note: If you’d like to read more on this subject, type “motivation” or “engagement” in the our Blog’s “Search” box. For example, check out a previous blog, “Do Better or Else! (What Motivates You?)”