Why employees arrive motivated – and leave demotivated

The subject of motivation is well-trodden ground, so please be rest assured this blog will have no mention of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and there is not a carrot or stick in sight.

How shocked would you be to find out that over half of your workforce lacked motivation? While that might not actually be the case in your workplace, it’s not encouraging when surveys like this one from Eden Springs tell us that, overall, around 50% of UK workers are demotivated.

Why? By what?

Too often leaders look at what they are not doing as the secret to unlocking greater levels of motivation amongst their workforce. However, it is often what a company is already doing poorly, that is the biggest contributor to low levels of motivation and engagement.

How are people motivated?

People are motivated in different ways. Some are naturally stimulated. It could literally be in their genetic make-up, such as the level of dopamine in certain brain regions, or a by-product of their upbringing or environment. For these people, external factors like workplace surroundings or reward probably don’t have a large impact on their motivation levels. Whilst factors such as micromanaging bosses may demotivate, their core setting is to get-up and get-going.

Of course, many aren’t necessarily wired this way, but psychological factors like the desire for money, success, ego, recognition and job satisfaction, can stimulate motivation in those who lack innate drive. Even then, external stimulants will have a different appeal to different people. For some, more money and success don’t influence their motivation. These tend to be a by-product of a motivated and driven person. Also, money won’t stimulate some people any more than employee recognition will stimulate others.

Read more: Five studies highlighting the power of intrinsic motivation (opens in new tab)

Demotivation, defined by a lack of interest and enthusiasm, can also be an innate trait. Research suggests some of us are pre-wired to be naturally apathetic – including this study which uncovered individual differences in premotor brain systems that underlined behavioral apathy between participants.

Whilst we’re all likely to have energy dips and days when we don’t feel as focused, long-term demotivation can prove costly to any organization and impact everything from productivity to profitability – as underlined in this article by business speaker Dr Alan Zimmerman who notes that ‘a lack of motivation is going to be ‘costing your company big bucks’.

Companies need to start understanding what is causing demotivation in the first place. With research showing many employees are innately motivated without any external stimulus required, what is it they are doing as an organization which is stifling that motivation?

Research suggests the following nine factors play a major role. Could any of them be affecting your workforce?

The downside of too much process

Process is necessary in any organization, but pathways which are too rigid could be causing more harm than good.

As Tine Thygesen notes in her Forbes article; “Process is unquestionably useful to a certain extent, as the counterweight to disorder. For a company to execute swiftly it needs a clear structure of who does what, and when.”

How process links to demotivation is when over-engineering takes place and checklists begin to outweigh common sense, leaving little room for human thinking. An over-reliance on process leads to employees feeling untrusted, ignored and that their contribution is only valued within parameters that are pre-defined by the company.

They can stop feeling responsible, hold back ideas and stop caring.

Long hours leading to burnout

In the UK employees are putting in the hours, yet productivity levels aren’t taking great leaps forward. Why? In one of our other articles, we’ve talked about research that suggests employees are working longer hours, because that’s what everyone else is doing. But is it making them more productive? No. And in many cases, excessive working hours are directly causing increased levels of burnout.

Read more: Six businesses that have moved to a four-day working week (and what they found)

It should come as no surprise that burnout and motivation are directly linked. This academic review by Meily Margaretha notes several empirical studies which have found a relationship between the two, including a lack of motivation leading to burnout – and burnout causing a slump in motivation.

Employees can’t make themselves heard

Take a look at page 310 of this research paper featured in the Journal of Industrial Relations and you’ll find the view that promoting the voice of the employee can indirectly impact on essential organizational metrics like productivity and absenteeism. By taking that voice away and making it difficult for employees to have their say, it stifles opportunities to express themselves. It squashes enthusiasm and motivation flat.

Perlow and Williams (2003) concluded from their studies that employees who feel unable to speak out can begin to feel resentment and anger – negative emotions which chip away at motivation and performance.

Poor relationships with management

As social creatures, the quality of our relationships and sense of belief in those that lead us have a huge impact on how motivated we feel. This CultureAmp research suggests that a sense of confidence in managers, and the ability to be inspired by them, is vital for strong morale. If employees are struggling to feel that way about their leaders, they’ll struggle to deliver an energized and motivated performance. For employees to feel motivated, they need to feel positive about their leaders and have good relationships with them.

Inadequate recognition

This research study found a whopping 70% of employees say if their managers took the time to say thank you more often, motivation and moral would see a big boost. By not taking the time to show staff you appreciate their efforts, they can feel undervalued. And let’s face it – feeling that your contribution isn’t seen, is an almost guaranteed way to end up utterly demotivated.

“Appreciate everything your associates do for the business. Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise. They’re absolutely free and worth a fortune.”

Sam Walton – Walmart Founder

Relentless micromanagement

Want to drain all the creative energy and enthusiasm out of your employees? Then micromanage them. What might be regarded by the micromanager as the exercising of efficient and vital checks on the activity of others… well, those ‘others’ might feel very differently about it. They’re likely to end up feeling demeaned, perhaps even oppressed and certainly not as though they are trusted.

Top performers, individuals who need autonomy and space to do their best work, can be particularly badly affected. Micromanagement can sap the life out of them, leading to complete demotivation and a sense of apathy. It’s hard to let go – as this hugely entertaining talk by Boxed.com CEO Chieh Huang acknowledges – but it’s essential to enable the smart and creative people in your organization to do their best work.

Job insecurity

There was an interesting study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health last year. It looked at the connection between job insecurity and intrinsic motivation levels and confirmed what you’d probably intuitively expect: if people feel less secure in their jobs, their motivation is affected.

And it seems that intrinsic motivation transmits the effects of job insecurity into behavioral outcomes too. If someone’s concerned about the future of their role, they’re likely to feel less motivated and the quality of their performance will be affected.

Weak coworker relationships

Research indicates that if people don’t have positive, strong relationships with their peers, they’re not going to feel anything like the same levels of motivation and engagement. As this Scientific American article explains, a sense of connection to one another is important. And according to this Harvard Business Review article, research has shown that close work friendships have a big impact on how satisfied employees feel and how likely people are to completely engage in their work.

The professional and personal support networks these friendships can lead to, are invaluable. And when people feel satisfied, it can have a big impact on performance; this INC article mentions a study that ran over a five year period and found that an increase in job satisfaction is directly related to a 6.6% increase in productivity per hour.

Inspiration is inhibited

Going back a few years, a Philips Work/Life Survey showed that people wanted their careers to offer more than just a source of income. To work at their best, employees wanted to be in workplaces where they could feel energized and inspired.

Read more: Nine evidence-based reasons to create a culture of learning

The study revealed employees wanted job happiness, and to be able to create more job satisfaction by bringing personal interests into their workplace career. They valued achieving greater shared success with their employers. If people don’t feel inspired by the work they’re doing, even if it comes with a generous salary, they won’t be motivated to put in sustained effort to deliver an effective performance.