June 26, 2006

Dessert Before Dinner

by Kathleen Groll Connolly and Paul M. Connolly

Thoughts on Morale, Motivation, Engagement, and Commitment

I wish I had a dollar for everytime someone searched our Web site looking for the "M&Ms." No, not the plain or peanut types. Everyone seems to be looking for “morale” and “motivation." We never know why various search terms gain popularity in our server logs. (A few years ago, for instance, everyone seemed to be looking for "business culture.") From our perspective, the search for these two particular terms leaves us wondering if people are trying to have dessert before dinner. Morale and motivation, in our experience, are after-dinner chocolates -- not the main course. Engagement and commitment are the end goals.

Morale, for instance, is not an end in itself. It is largely a “happiness” measure. Managers like high morale because it increases cooperation. The presence of high morale reduces negativity in the workplace atmosphere. An example of a popular morale question on employee surveys is: “Overall, I am satisfied working for this organization at the present time.” The responses to this question are at least partially based on satisfaction with workplace hygiene factors, which don't necessarily help get the right things done.

Hygiene factors, recall from your classroom days, represent the most basic features of the workplace. Fair compensation, basic safety, decent lighting, and other resources needed to do a job are hygiene factors. They are expected. Their absence can make people very unhappy, but their presence does not make people happy.

Other satisfiers, however, do set the stage for higher levels of morale or satisfaction -- with the right employee.

Take the examples of two employees. Maria takes pleasure in accomplishment both at work and in her personal life. As her work unit rides the tiger of rapidly expanding sales, she finds herself personally satisfied by being on a team that is reaching a challenging goal. Her morale is positively enhanced by the experience.

Susan, on the other hand, is more interested in affiliation -- workplace friendships, customer relations and family -- than business accomplishment. She finds the rigors of rapid sales growth irritating. She would prefer a more relaxed work environment with lots of focus on relationships. The absence of it has a negative effect on her morale.

Maria is a good fit with the environment; Susan is not. Their morale is partially an after-effect of their fit. It can be very worthwhile to address the morale of employees who are a good fit.

We have often seen workplaces where the management has worked to help people feel comfortable and satisfied, yet have NOT been rewarded with increased productivity by those same employees. They may report good morale (high responses on an item such as “I am satisfied working for this organization at the present time”). But this does not always induce a desire to act. For instance, low responses on an item such as “People in this organization do whatever it takes to get the job done” might depict a workplace where satisfaction is relatively high but propensity to act is poor. This is hardly the steak and potatoes of good organizational management.

Motivation is not the same as morale. Motivation is an internal state of willingness and readiness to act. The two terms are often used together and sometimes interchangeably. Does high morale have a useful role in motivation? Maybe, if satisfaction (morale) contributes to willingness and readiness to act (motivation). But there’s a twist to this, a surprise we’ve gotten over and over again: high motivation (readiness to act) more often leads to satisfaction (morale) than satisfaction leads to motivation. Again, a person’s existing motivations and their fit with the environment can make all the difference in morale.

Think of Maria in the example above. She arrives at her job already motivated by the high performance characteristics of her workplace. She may have been motivated along these lines ever since she ran a successful lemonade stand as an eight-year-old. Feeling a level of personal success and finding herself in a stimulating environment, her morale is high.

So let's say Maria is a good fit. She's a salesperson, and she’s motivated both personally and professionally by her job. (She wants to buy a new Lexus with her earnings from the 2006 commission plan.) She has high morale. Is this enough?

Engagement signifies involvement of the whole individual – mind, spirit, heart. If Maria is not engaged, she may go for easy sales and ignore territory development. The fully engaged employee would be concerned with developing a territory as well as short-term commissions. An example of an engagement question on an employee survey is: “The work I do is very important to the long-term success of this organization.” An engaged employee is fully involved and aligned, and applies his or her motivations to the organization’s goals. Indeed, current thinking says that this is the chocolate-covered cherry of workforce management.

But nothing is easy in organizational life. Let’s say Maria has positive morale and motivation and is engaged. Is there more? Maybe.

Commitment governs employees’ disposition towards continued investment of time and energy in a job or organization. Many employers contact us about surveys when they see high turnover. “What’s wrong with our workplace?” they sometimes ask. “Why aren’t people committed to staying here?” Yet commitment, like morale, motivation, and engagement, comes from some intrinsic organizational factors that may not be obvious at first. Our research and experience show that two factors are more significant than others in creating commitment:

1. Management skills of immediate managers and supervisors: We’d like to think people are committed to organizations, but they must first deal with the people immediately around them. When immediate managers are skilled, the first barrier to commitment is removed. People are able to become committed to working for their managers. For instance, a survey might contain a question such as: “My manager sets work objectives that motivate people.” High scores on an item such as this portray individuals who are more likely to be committed to working for the immediate manager.

2. Successful job performance: Go back a few paragraphs, where we made the comment that successful job performance can lead to high morale/satisfaction. The experience of positive feedback that follows successful job performance also increases commitment. Intuitively, employers want employees to be committed to increase the success of the organization. But in the real world, employees’ organizational commitment seems to increase when they experience personal success. This again underscores the importance of top-notch selection and hiring practices. An example of a question that diagnoses this element of commitment is this: “My work gives me a feeling of personal accomplishment.”

To all those people searching for the M&Ms, I offer some advice: Make sure you cook a good dinner before reaching for the candy. Look first for people who have the right fit with your organization. Design jobs so that these carefully selected people can experience success. Then open the bag of M&Ms. And please save some red ones for me.

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