Motivating workers is easier than you think

Private-sector researchers have recently uncovered a way to improve employee satisfaction that's within managers' control

In May 2009, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag put agencies on notice. Job satisfaction, he said, “needs to be built into the way we run government.” He made his comment at the Partnership for Public Service ceremony announcing agency rankings in the annual Best Places to Work survey. He followed through by including employee survey data and agencies’ efforts to improve their ratings in his agency-by-agency reviews for the fiscal 2011 budget cycle.

As a result, agency managers have been scrambling to figure out ways to improve employee satisfaction. Private-sector researchers have recently uncovered an approach that seems to work. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, in a recent Harvard Business Review article called “What Really Motivates Workers,” tell managers: “The key to motivation turns out to be largely within your control.”

Their advice? “Scrupulously avoid impeding progress.”

Amabile and Kramer surveyed more than 600 managers and then conducted a multiyear study of hundreds of knowledge workers, asking them to keep daily diaries to discover the top motivator of performance. Not surprisingly, managers and workers came to different conclusions.

Managers were asked to rank the impact of five workplace factors commonly considered significant motivators: recognition, incentives, interpersonal support, support for making progress and clear goals. “Recognition for good work” topped their list.

However, the recognition factor was ranked dead last by workers. The researchers found that workers ranked “support for making progress” as their No. 1 motivator. “On days when workers have the sense they’re making headway in their jobs...their emotions are most positive and their drive to succeed is at its peak.” However, “on days when they feel they are spinning their wheels or encountering roadblocks to meaningful accomplishment, their moods and motivation are lowest.”

In a close analysis of thousands of diary entries, Amabile and Kramer found that “making progress” was linked to 76 percent of employees’ reported “best days.”

What are the implications of those findings? Managers have a lot more control over motivating employees than they might have thought. “Create a culture of helpfulness.... Roll up your sleeves and pitch in,” the authors wrote. “Provide meaningful goals, resources and encouragement, and ... protect [your] people from irrelevant demands.” They conclude by saying, “Recognition can’t happen every day. You can, however, see that progress happens every day.”

Does that approach really work? Think about your best bosses. Weren’t they the ones who made it their goal to deal with the bureaucracy and irrelevant demands so you could deal with the work? Wasn’t it a great feeling to make real progress because your boss had cleared the way? Great leaders seem to understand that intuitively. For example, Gen. Colin Powell often said his job wasn’t only to clarify overall goals but also to sweat the small stuff so his staff could focus on the big problems.

It’s a new year. Try this shift in management emphasis. Ask your employees what gets in their way of making progress and try to do something about it. After a few weeks, take some time to see if your efforts have made a difference.

About the Author

John M. Kamensky is a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government and a fellow at the National Academy of Public Administration. He can be reached at

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Reader comments

Tue, Jan 26, 2010 GoROWE

For too long, managers have been focusing on granting permission rather than guiding performance.

Fri, Jan 22, 2010

Not rocket surgery here folks. Pay the employees well, treat them decently, and only give them assignments where they can actually see some relationship between what they do, and mission effectiveness and capability. (IOW, no buzzward du jour study teams, touchy-feely 'empowerment' projects, and all that sort of annoying fluff. If it ain't mission, it is overhead.

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