Lack of employee motivation rooted in poor executive management styles

Business leaders have been witnessing a motivation crisis within their companies since before the pandemic. According to Gallup’s 2018 State of the Global Workplace report, 85 percent of employees are not engaged or are actively disengaged at work.

While many factors have led to trends such as the Great Resignation and quiet quitting, one of the major — if not the major — causes of declines in employee engagement is executives who ignore the motivational possibilities of developmental activities for their workforce.

Contrary to popular belief, most people don’t work just for the financial compensation. They also work for a sense of purpose and meaning. Through studies by Professor Tony Jack of Case Western Reserve University, neurological evidence of this has been discovered and defined.

Two dominant and necessary networks in the brain often get misdirected through mismanagement, leading to an inhibition of motivation. One is the analytic network activated during non-emotional tasks, such as financial analysis, reporting and problem-solving. The other is the empathic network activated during activities such as coaching, mentoring, relationship-building, learning and creative thinking. The latter allows us to be open to new ideas, other people and emotions. We need both networks to function effectively as professionals and executives. But, unfortunately, executives’ typical style of management prohibits this.

An overemphasis by executives on operations and financials means they often don’t see others in terms of their desire for development or their potential to learn and grow. Instead, they’re more likely to see them as a “problem-bearing platform,” or as a means to accomplishing tasks and reaching goals. The focus is then on the problem, not the person. This precludes the executive from seeing the development of others as a priority.

When an executive is in this mindset and offers help, it is often in the form of corrective actions or “constructive criticism.” We began studying this specific process in the 1990s and labeled this type of so-called help “coaching for compliance.” With coaching for compliance, we try to get others to act how we want them to, to improve, to be motivated. Most management training and management education is organized around this principle. What they often don’t notice is that any effort at complying with their wishes is short-lived. People’s motivation and sense of engagement drop over time. They lose hope and stop bringing all their talent to work every day.

An approach to motivating and developing others that works more effectively is what we call “coaching with compassion.” That is, helping the other person move closer to their dreams and sense of purpose. This approach activates the empathic network, encouraging the person to be more open to others and new ideas. It activates the renewing hormonal systems in the body, helping the person feel excited. They become positively infectious, and others start to catch the enthusiasm. People begin bringing their full set of talents to work, unleashing their total potential.

Executives who expand their focus to include the personal development of others will infuse life and energy into the executive team. As this focus on development cascades through the organization, it can have a positive and sustained impact on organizational performance. ●

Richard Boyatzis, Ph.D. is Professor, Organizational Behavior at Weatherhead School of Management

Richard Boyatzis, Ph.D.

Professor, Organizational Behavior
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