In praise of praise, part two: a classic idea with a twist

Recently, a statistic from the book, How Full Is Your Bucket?, caught my eye and prompted a blog installment called “In Praise of Praise, Or at What Cost Disengagement?” Shortly after I finished that, I came across an older copy of HBR (January-February, 2010) and an article called, “What Really Motivates Workers,” by Amabile and Kramer. It, too, got me thinking about motivation and about the responsibilities of managers to keep their teams engaged. The Amabile and Kramer article seemed to contradict the claims made by Rath and Clifton (authors of the aforementioned book) and years of Gallup research – at least initially.

According to Amabile and Kramer’s research, what leaders think motivates employees differs from what actually motivates employees. Six hundred managers were asked to rank five factors considered significant in workplace motivation: recognition, incentives, interpersonal support, support for making progress, and clear goals. Managers ranked recognition as the most important factor. So, this is the first thing that got me thinking…Where were these managers when Rath and Clifton did their research? But, I set this thought aside and moved on.

Amabile and Kramer also conducted a multiyear research study in order to learn more about what motivates top performance in employees – and, like the Gallup researchers, they went to the source. The researchers tracked hundreds of knowledge workers on a daily basis to learn more about their activities, emotions, and motivation levels. What their research found is that progress is the top motivator of performance. More importantly, this factor was ranked last by the manager survey participants. (The article details the research methodology.) So, I thought (again), why is there such a “disconnect” between what actually motivates employees and what managers think motivates employees? I assume managers were once employees, too.

Then I thought about one of my clients. Valerie works for an internet start-up and came to see me because she found little satisfaction in her job. Digging a bit deeper, we found that Valerie likes her boss and co-workers, and her salary, and the location and commute. The problem centered on the annual goals that she and her manager set, and her lack of progress in even getting near some of those goals. As a specialist in her company, managers frequently ask for her help with projects, and she has no means of delegation. Consequently, she finds herself feeling over-worked and deflated about not receiving the support from her manager to make progress in meeting her goals. And these negative feelings of frustration, suggest Amabile and Kramer, “…have a greater effect on people’s emotions, perceptions, and motivation than positive ones…” This has been shown in positive psychology research and holds true for Valerie, who is seeking other work.

This got me thinking again. Valerie’s manager is very good about praising her response times to the various managers who require her help in the moment. Yet, when she voices concern that she has not touched her project goals, he nods and says that he will discuss it with his manager – and nothing happens. So maybe recognition is not only about acknowledging good work (see In Praise of Praise, Part One), but also about recognizing what impedes the employee’s progress – and doing something about it! Indeed, Amabile and Kramer state that as a manager, “The key to motivation turns out to be largely within your control.”

What could her manager do to help Valerie’s progress? Without knowing what his manager expects, it is difficult for me to say. Amabile and Kramer suggest that managers clarify overall goals and “cultivate a culture of helpfulness,” even to the point of the manager helping the employee. The last suggestion is offering recognition and their research revealed this simple step does matter to employees. Valerie’s boss does commend her for quick response times and the quality of her work. However, in light of the lack of progress in her work, this is not enough to keep her motivated.