• Archive

Getting a Handle on Employee Motivation

Figuring out how to motivate your staff and adapt your style for their particular "career anchors" can turn all employees into higher performers.

Motivated employees are crucial to a company's success—this has never been truer than today, when margins are thin (or nonexistent) and economic recovery remains elusive. These hard bottom-line realities may also mean that managers can't rely as much as they might have in the past on using financial incentives to drive employee engagement.

So how do you keep people motivated and productive?

One answer lies in the concept of the career anchor, first developed some thirty years ago by Edgar Schein, a Sloan Fellows Professor of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Schein says that people are primarily motivated by one of eight anchors—priorities that define how they see themselves and how they see their work.

In today's uncertain and turbulent business climate, pinpointing employees' career anchors is an especially useful tool because it allows you to do two crucial things: Tailor your communication style to fit employees' individual needs and drive improved performance by choosing the most effective way to recognize and reward accomplishments.

The upshot: In a demanding environment where financial resources may be limited, you'll be able to make employees feel valued and motivated.

Once you understand what each anchor is, you can determine the career anchor for each employee in your department.

"If you use career anchors effectively, you'll turn your employees into high performers," says Linda Conklin, manager of alumni career services at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and a former executive coach.

The eight anchors:

· Technical/functional competence. The key for a person with this career anchor is a desire to excel in a chosen line of work. Money and promotions don't matter as much as the opportunity to consistently hone his craft. While such professions as engineering and software design attract a lot of people with this particular bent, you can also find them just about anywhere, from the financial analyst excited by the chance to solve complicated investment problems to the teacher happy to continually fine-tune classroom performance.

· General managerial competence. Someone with this anchor is most closely allied with the traditional career path of the corporation. She is the polar opposite of the person for whom technical/functional competence is preeminent. She wants to learn how to do many functions, synthesize information from multiple sources, supervise increasingly larger groups of employees, and use her considerable interpersonal skills. What she craves is to climb the ladder, getting ever-bigger promotions and salary increases.

· Autonomy/independence. Like Greta Garbo, individuals with this career anchor just want to be alone. They're most satisfied operating according to their own rules and procedures; they don't want to be told what to do. Freedom rather than prestige is their goal.

· Security/stability. Employees with this career anchor value above all a predictable environment, one in which tasks and policies are clearly codified and defined. They identify strongly with their organization, whatever their level of responsibility.

· Entrepreneurial creativity. The folks in this category want to create something of their own and run it. They are, in fact, obsessed with the need to create and will become easily bored if they feel thwarted. As you'd expect, someone with this career anchor tends to start her own business, or at the least run something on the side while still keeping her day job.

· Sense of service. The need to focus work around a specific set of values is the major issue for employees with this career anchor. But that doesn't just mean social workers, say, or nurses. It can also include anyone from a human resources specialist interested in affirmative action programs to a researcher working on developing a new drug. Money isn't the main event; it's the chance to focus on a particular cause.

· Pure challenge. People with this career anchor seek ever-tougher challenges to conquer.

· Lifestyle. These folks organize themselves around their private lives. Their most pressing concern is for their jobs to give them the freedom to balance those other concerns with their work.

Once you understand what each anchor is, you can determine the career anchor for each employee in your department. If you can't pinpoint the right area on your own, you can easily ask your staff to take a brief assessment, developed by Schein. Then you can take the next step and shape both how you communicate and how you recognize good performance in a way that fits each person's particular career anchor. Here are some guidelines:

Technical/functional competence
How to communicate. "They want to be honored for what they know," says Jan Gamache, an executive coach in Alexandria, VA, who specializes in the development of senior executives and their teams. So you need to appeal to them as experts and try to see that others do the same. Gamache points to a highly respected engineer whose new CEO had failed to publicly acknowledge an appreciation for his preeminence in his field. The man had become very demoralized as a result and was considering quitting.

Also, in conversation with someone with a technical/functional competence anchor, if you know something about the field in question, display your knowledge. But if you don't, don't try to fake it. "They'll see through you immediately and will lose respect for you," says Bobbie Little, leader of the CEO Executive Coaching Division of DBM, a Stamford, CT-based outplacement firm.

Best type of recognition. These employees probably won't care that much if they can't get a raise. But they will become demoralized if they feel they can't keep refining their expertise or if they fear they won't be able to keep on being the best. "The worst possible thought for these people would be 'I've lost my edge,'" says Gamache. So make sure they can go to conferences, meetings, and other places where they're able to hone their craft and keep up with the latest developments.

General managerial competence
How to communicate. The people in this group may be the easiest to talk to, thanks to their finely tuned interpersonal skills. They know how to lobby, they're good at politics, and they can read verbal and nonverbal cues. But in an atmosphere of limited resources, they also may be the hardest to please.

Because they're likely interested in how their performance fits into the organization as a whole, not just in the pure exercise of their expertise, make sure to discuss their work in terms of performance-based, bottom-line results. And ask their input on supervisory matters, so they feel they're stretching their managerial muscles.

Best type of recognition. These people really want more money and a promotion. Since you might not be able to provide those things, you need to look for other ways to enrich their jobs. For example, find big projects for them to supervise or invite them to attend important meetings. Send them to seminars and workshops where they'll learn to advance their skills. And see about giving them a more prestigious title.

In addition, look for secondary career anchors they might respond to. Conklin, for example, points to a hard-driving sales rep for a major hospital service provider whom she recently met. While he fell clearly into the general managerial area, he also showed signs of being in the lifestyle category, too. Unable to give him more money, management instead awarded him the opportunity to become a sales trainer. Result: He was able to dramatically cut back on his travel and spend more time with his family.

How to communicate. These employees want to be on their own, so the less said, the better. Agree on a timetable for checking in with each other—and stick to it. And be prepared not to hear from them, even at the appointed time.

Little, for example, who supervises many autonomy-minded people, often finds it hard to schedule group conference calls. "At least one or two people usually don't make it," she says. "It's not that they're irresponsible, it's just that they have different priorities."

Don't just talk about the work. Focus on the aspect of the job that they most value.

Best type of recognition. In the current tough climate, you may feel the need to interfere more than you might otherwise. Resist the temptation to do so. The most effective recognition you can give these people is the chance to "take the ball and run with it," says Barry Miller, instructor in management at Pace University's Lubin School of Business in New York City and an instructor in organizational management.

How to communicate. These days, people with this career anchor need to hear from you early and often. That means checking in frequently, so they're not left hanging. If there are rumors of cutbacks, keep communicating, even if you don't know the real story. Then come back again, even if nothing has changed.

Additionally, make a point of talking to them about the importance of life-long learning and keeping their skills up to date. If you don't urge them to take action, they won't.

Best type of recognition. You probably can't give them what they want: job security. But you can make the most of their loyalty to the organization and take steps to show appreciation for it, like taking them out to lunch or organizing a departmental picnic.

Entrepreneurial creativity
How to communicate. Encourage them to keep coming up with new ideas, no matter how wacky they may sound at first. And consistently ask them about projects they'd like to take on. Hold regular brainstorming sessions. These people tend to be highly enthusiastic, so try to match that upbeat quality, too. Challenge them with goals, not specific assignments, and leave them to get on with the job.

The more you let them figure out, the happier they'll be.

Best type of recognition. They also tend to be fairly self-centered. And they want money, not for its own sake, but as a visible sign they've accomplished something big. If you can't give them the money, you can provide public recognition as well as the reward they crave most—the continued opportunity to create their own projects. Entrepreneurs can be extremely sensitive to slights and are not very good at taking criticism, so give them plenty of public praise when it's merited, and criticize them in private when necessary.

Sense of service
How to communicate. Don't just talk about the work. Focus on the aspect of the job that they most value. And look for projects that match their area of concern. Clarify the connection between the work and some loftier ideal. Let them know how they'll contribute to the greater good by doing the job at hand.

Best type of recognition. What they want most is to be able to continue working for their cause. By explicitly providing those opportunities, you'll give them what they need. You might also find that employees come up with unexpected ways to integrate their values into their work.

University of North Carolina's Conklin points to her assistant as one example. Conklin recently gave her a project—developing a seminar for students on how to dress for success. But because this assistant places great value on issues related to minorities, she made an effort to include a diverse group of models, in terms of size, shape, and color. Conklin plans on giving her assistant other projects that she can enrich with her particular value system.

Pure challenge
How to communicate. These people tend to be confrontational, often exuding a sense of urgency about the challenge of the moment and how to go about meeting it. As a result, "be prepared to push back," says DBM's Little. Insist on more explanation, when necessary, and on making sure the particular solution is the right one.

Raise the bar for success as high as you like; they'll thrive on it. Don't make anything too easy for them.

Best type of recognition. If you keep throwing challenges their way, they'll know they've done good work. When you see they're about to finish a project, try to find another for them to get started on immediately. Allow them a certain amount of time during the day to work on a particularly challenging assignment in addition to their regular duties.

For these people, the challenge is the reward, so don't go overboard with words of praise. Just get them going on the next job.

How to communicate. You need to be direct and to-the-point. Discuss what the employee needs and how best to organize schedules to accommodate his requests. Make sure the requirements of the job are clearly spelled out, together with the rewards for doing well and the penalties for doing poorly.

These people work to live, they don't live to work, so don't expect them to go beyond the basic requirements or job description. Make sure everything that you need from them is on the table.

Best type of recognition. Working out a flexible schedule is the most effective reward. Just as they don't expect to do more than the job's minimal requirements, they don't expect rewards beyond the salary. So give them the chance to maximize their nonwork hours when they do well and work efficiently. Get them to focus on getting the job done, not putting in a set number of hours, and reward them with time away from work.

Seek employees' input
Ultimately, you need to enlist your employees in your efforts. "Employees have to take the initiative to communicate with their managers about what's most important to them," says Conklin.

For example, she recently wrote out a wish list of thirty things she'd most like in her job, then sat down with her boss and hammered out a solution. (Her primary anchor is the autonomy/independence one.) Now, instead of doing the job she was hired for—conducting career workshops—she engages primarily in one-on-one counseling.

The bottom line, says Pace University's Miller: "People whose work is more meaningful are going to be more productive, even in tough times." By identifying employees' career anchors and communicating with them in a way that speaks to what's most important to them, you can help employees find that meaning in their work—and boost your unit's productivity, too.

Reprinted with permission from "Speak to What Drives Them," Harvard Management Communication Letter, September 2003.

See the latest issue of Harvard Management Communication Letter.

Anne Field, based in Pelham, NY, writes for a number of major business publications. She can be reached at hmcl@hbsp.harvard.edu.