What motivates employees the most?

What motivates employees the most
by Thought Leadership Zen

The top three variables for employers: dollars, job security, and promotions are consistent with the perspectives of some of today’s leaders in relation to their employees.

It is worth comparing these with the top three variables chosen by employees namely, appreciation, a feeling of belonging, and sympathy for personal problems.

What Motivates Employees the Most

Employee Motivations: Appreciation

When I was a superintendent of schools, many principals shared their feelings with me from time to time on how much they valued being told that their work was appreciated and that a supervisor valued qualities such as their commitment to students and work ethic.

Direct, specific, meaningful, and genuine feedback motivated them to do even more and to be better at what they did. Their comments included popular sayings such as “You can catch bees with honey, not vinegar!” These were confident, successful adults! One could be so easily tempted to think that they did not need to be affirmed and validated. But another lesson that we can all learn is that even the most confident and successful employees thrive on being validated by their supervisors. There is almost a human need for reaffirmation especially from those who have the responsibility to evaluate performance or to determine one’s promotion.

Employee Motivations: Feeling of Belonging

The second on this list a feeling of belonging should not be underestimated, either. A workplace that has this ethos is also one that has lower turnover rates. People want to be there. There is a sense of collegiality a notion that goes beyond congeniality. Sergiovanni (1990) used these terms and made distinctions between them years ago. More recently, others, such as Jasper (2014), have made similar observations. Where true collegiality exists, people are highly motivated to work toward common goals and outcomes.

More recent work on professional learning communities (PLCs) has highlighted the difference between congeniality and collegiality. My own observation is that the change in behaviors of those engaged in PLCs over the years has been phenomenal. In the early years, when there wasn’t a deep understanding of how PLCs operate at their best, there were superficial notions of what successful PLCs looked like.

People falsely equated “noise” with a real desire to solve problems related to the school. Consequently, they did not ensure that improvement was the primary reason for these gatherings. There has, however, been a discernible difference in how PLCs are functioning today. Educators have expanded their ideas about PLCs with the research that has been available in recent years. As noted above, PLCs can have a real impact when collegiality is at its best.

Employee Motivations: Sympathy for Personal Problems

The third variable ranked by employees is “sympathy for personal problems.” Employees do not leave their problems at home or at the front gate of the school. The issues that they are facing at home or in the community are always with them. Only a few individuals can simply shake off problems, do their jobs, and pick up later from where they left off the previous day. Their concerns on and off the job can affect their interactions with their colleagues and students.

I remember working with a principal who suggested to staff that they should leave their problems behind and not take them into his school. His unwillingness to see staff members in their multiple roles as coaches, parents, religious leaders or community members reflected his lack of a strong people orientation in the workplace. Not surprisingly, he was neither liked nor respected. People would not go to him if they had personal problems.

Being attuned to the personal problems of staff can help aspiring and seasoned leaders alike see people in the totality of their human character, qualities, values, aspirations, and worldviews. It also helps them suspend judgment when problems or conflicts arise. Asking the custodian about her sick child, taking the first-period class for a teacher who had a dental appointment, or covering for the school secretary who is going through a divorce can make a difference in the culture of the school and the relationships that are forged.

It is in small ways that we demonstrate our humanity, caring, and concern for others in the workplace. And instead of using the term “sympathy” for personal problems, I would make a slight change to take this idea to a new level by describing this variable as “empathy for personal problems.”

Empathy: A Quintessential Leadership Competence

The ability to be empathetic has profound implications for the way we engage one another at an interpersonal level. It is the quintessential human characteristic one that demonstrates genuineness and loyalty and engenders a strong sense of connection with people. Empathy describes the feeling or reaction that most people welcome, especially when they are having problems.

Six basic steps and a few strategies for developing empathy, as we teach this skill to our students in the same way we approach teaching other skills. These steps include the following:

  1. Listening
  2. Understanding
  3. Internalizing
  4. Projecting
  5. Planning
  6. Intervening
As an educator, I cannot emphasize enough how careful one must be in selecting books for use in schools. It is not about censorship, as some will say. It is about ensuring that the same students do not have to spend their entire careers feeling that they, and the groups to which they belong, are never presented in a positive light.
As a superintendent of schools, I have been called by students who are crying and asking if they have to remain in classes in which they are presented in a negative light. What is unfortunate is that these groups never have the opportunity to see themselves or their groups presented positively.
Teachers and principals are encouraged to make sure that students and their backgrounds are presented positively and that students have avenues to share their thoughts and feelings about the content of the curriculum and its impact on them. It is important to acknowledge that there is a serious problem when students and their backgrounds are consistently portrayed negatively in the books to which they are exposed in the classroom.
If students and their cultures are never portrayed positively, there is a great imbalance in what they will take away. So many students from diverse backgrounds have complained over the years about the negative impact of how they are portrayed. It is important for teachers and school leaders to see this as an unfairness for students in general, and for students from minority backgrounds in particular. So often, when I expressed the complaints of many students and parents, the response was, “These are the classics!” My response was, “The classics for whom?”
I was very impressed with education in New Zealand when I served as an adviser to the minister of education. One of the tenets of the curriculum at the time should serve as a lesson to all of us: “The curriculum should not alienate the students.”
I hasten to admit that in recent years I have met many teachers and principals who are attuned to these issues and are making every effort to ensure that their schools are implementing equitable and inclusive education practices. In fact, in Ontario, for example, we have developed many documents to address this and other equity issues.
This award-winning document, which is being implemented in Ontario schools, was designed to make concrete suggestions and provide opportunities for all students to reach their fullest potential. The document acknowledges that publicly funded education is the cornerstone of democracy, preparing students for their role in society as engaged, productive, and responsible citizens. It recognizes that some groups of students, including recent immigrants, children from low-income families, aboriginal students, boys, and students with special education needs, among others, may be at risk of lower achievement if concerted efforts are not taken to address these issues.
The document lays out a clear vision for equity and asserts that excellence and equity must go hand in hand. They are, by no means, diametrically opposed. Instead, they are two sides of the same coin at least, and often on the same continuum, at best. The document emphasizes the fact that an equitable and inclusive education system is fundamental in realizing high levels of student achievement and is central in creating a cohesive society and a strong economy to secure Ontario’s future prosperity.

Framed within the context of the province’s Human Rights Code, this strategy envisions an education system in which:

  • All students, parents, and other members of the school community are welcomed and respected.
  • Every student is supported and inspired to succeed in a culture of high expectations for learning.
Early in my leadership career, I developed and taught a course for leaders. It was called “Human Relations in Education.” I was motivated by the fact that the leaders whom I considered to be effective all possessed a constellation of skills that are now being described in business and other fields as “people skills” or interpersonal competencies. What was interesting at the time was that there was so much focus on principal training programs on emphasizing operational skills budgets, timetabling, staffing, and plant operations, among others.
Admittedly, every aspiring leader should have at least a baseline knowledge of operational functions. My contention is that these tasks were being emphasized at the exclusion of the skills that I felt, from experience, were required to be effective leaders of people and to transform organizations, among other important goals.
It was not surprising that some of the individuals who failed miserably as principals or superintendents or in business could perform operational duties very well. But their Achilles’ heel was their inability to lead and work effectively with people.
My experience in education tells me that both skill sets are needed if organizations are to function effectively. The issue is that we should not hide behind the operational duties because these are not the ones that take organizations to new levels of attainment. It is through people and capacity building that we are able to move organizations to the apex or pinnacle of performance and greater levels of achievement.
Teaching human relations and interpersonal competencies must become an essential component of leadership development programs.

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