Are teams motivated and if not, why not?

In thinking about this, I was prompted to mull motivation in its broadest sense. As a CV writer I require to be very motivated. It is never going to be the most financially rewarding job (don’t let anyone ever tell you different!); and – to be fair, in line with many other service jobs – clients can be difficult, demanding and obstreperous. It took me quite some time to appreciate the link between what the client pays and the expectations they have. This time-taken was because early on, my work was primarily contractual. This meant that the bulk of the payment was made to the agency yet almost all the work was done by me (who’s the mug I ask myself). That was why I tried to grow more of a reputation to develop a then-aligned freelance – and much more profitable, for me – client base.

The relevance of that to my piece is that it brought into question for me, what motivates any of us in the workplace – and what, or who, demotivates us. You will see a thread of the exploration of management and motivation. I need you to not be sector / job-specific in your reading; rather, to read it as applying equally to all industries. It all applies to CV writers and CV clients as much as it does to any other workplace, because, as with any other work environment, it’s all about relationship management. A self-employed CV writer, a freelance tutor, a corporate CEO – we all succeed or fail by managing relationships between both us and our clients, us and our colleagues, and us and our own work environment.

Many would say the key motivator is not money – probably true for many but not for others. For example, someone working for little money in a war-torn remote region may derive huge satisfaction – and thereby great motivation; and continuously so, so it snowballs. A very highly paid manager in a wholly impersonal, very aggressive corporate culture may be able to buy a big house but be miserable and disengaged.

So, my motivation is, yes, to strive for more money, but to do so through incremental client satisfaction and reputational business-build. But what of the (sic) “wider motivation” in the workplace. I pondered.

Why, you ask, is J.K. Rowling’s view on her own motivation linked to organisational management and, arguably, more our focus in this blog forum than writing novels? (by the way you’ll find her if you look for “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination” 2008). I would suggest it’s because she had to manage her own aspirations, reality (is anyone ever going to publish and how do I survive on toast until they do?) and her own at-times perceived failure. She has said she often couldn’t see beyond the next page or the next day; she couldn’t imagine the bigger picture. The same can – not does – occur in business. We often have a narrow field of view of “the manager” at work. We have a gut – a reactive if you will – that points at managers as controlling teams, directing people, using manpower to push on with the business.

Well, you say, that’s true. Of course, I reply. But let’s open it up. Would the people be there to manage anything if the business failed? No. Would the business thrive if the selected teams were poor performers? No. But equally, would the business survive or thrive if any of the team – the manager included – failed in carrying out their tasks which included controlling, person-dependent, procurement, financial control, inventory, HR and so on? No.

So, the motivational manager and his team need to be both self-motivated – to push him and themselves to see the end result by seeing the bigger picture – and also motivational so that they all deliver that big picture.

In the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)’s 2017 piece “Employee engagement and motivation”, they noted: “Employees who have good quality jobs and are managed well, will not only be happier, healthier, and more fulfilled, but are also more likely to drive productivity, better products or services, and innovation – motivation and people management lies at the heart of employee engagement”. It’s pretty self-evident I think, not earth-shattering; but this last part is, I think, what employers’ focus should be. Treat your people well, understand them, take the time, and they’ll perform better. Flip it and take, for example, the (wider) UK public sector. In 2017, after 10 years of restricted or capped pay, and real-terms pay cuts, they feel fully disengaged and worth-less – in the literal sense.

I think it is not only useful but incumbent upon organisations to constantly examine the nature of employee engagement, but also its relationship to motivation.

What makes or motivates a good manager to absorb, stimulate and inspire a team? The question is enormous in scope. Some people might say that a good manager is one who is successful – different of course in different contexts: motivating doctors in warzones is different from motivating bookkeepers in a start-up. In the 21st century, most would agree that business people know what motivates people who successfully run their own small businesses. The key to their success is the desire to do something better or more efficiently than it has been done before. As we have covered elsewhere and in the past, look at how many management self-help and help books are available. A random June 2017 Google search of “Books on motivating staff” gives me the expected huge list.

But does the fact that a business is very successful and efficient mean that everyone is motivated? Is it the case that, by virtue of its success, the manager is always motivational? I think not. Many managers, it could be argued, feel that their need to achieve leads people to behave in ways that do not necessarily engender good management. We have referenced previously Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, both of whom have publicly been shown many times to be borderline dictatorial – is that motivational? Perhaps to some – and massively successful.

For one thing, because they focus on personal improvement, achievement-motivated people want to do things themselves. For another, they want concrete short-term feedback on their performance so that they can tell how well they are doing. Yet managers, particularly in large, complex organisations, cannot perform by themselves all the tasks necessary for success. They must manage others to deliver. And they must be willing to do without immediate and personal feedback since tasks are spread among many people.

I feel when I write CVs that I combine the writing very much with directing, coaching and motivating my clients. I need to deliver a service which is not only the end product but also, crucially, how and where to use that product, how to maximise its impact. It is an integral part of what I do. To do the opposite would be like saying to someone, run a restaurant, without going into demography, client type, budgets, menu format. You can’t just open the door and push the service.

Of course, motivation would generally be seen as arguably different from coaching – at least in part. For the CV writer, that should definitely be the case. My ability to motivate them – usually by virtue of clarifying, and market-evidencing, how ATS works, and then producing a CV which scores highly – is different from my ability to coach them to have the confidence to go away and use it. Coaching could – should? – be focused on soft skill or technical competencies, and the CV writer absolutely needs both – just to manage coaching and motivation but also to demonstrate to the client an intrinsic understanding of their own soft and technical to the end product.

A person’s soft skills are an important part of their individual contribution to the success of an organisation, be that as a one-man organisation or a company. Organisations which deal with customers face-to-face are generally more successful if they promote activities for staff to develop these skills. I wrote for a client recently who worked for one of the “big 4” UK supermarkets. His manager’s focus for him was very definitely soft-driven – both were very aware of the need for good customer service as more vital than, say, how to operate the till. The emphasis was much more on communication, courtesy, flexibility, integrity, a positive attitude, and professionalism.

Training or rewarding for personal habits or traits such as dependability and conscientiousness can yield significant return on investment for an organisation. For this reason, soft skills are increasingly sought out by employers in addition to standard qualifications. Many of my LinkedIn received recommendations contain as much about my empathy as my understanding of the client’s role.

Studies by Stanford Research Institute and the Carnegie Mellon Foundation among Fortune 500 CEOs established that 75% of long-term job success resulted from soft skills and only 25% from technical skills. Hence, soft skills are as important as cognitive/technical skills.

So, my own understanding and use of coaching, and client and my own motivation, is clearly analogous to corporate motivation. Ultimately motivation as a “thing” is more to do with individual satisfaction than it is with context. The 2 are, of course, linked; but the client can change the context which will increase their motivation. I develop my own better-paying freelance base, or work for a different client type, which increases my motivation. The NHS doctor who is demoralised leaves for an NGO and is more motivated.

There was significant global research carried out at various points around this, primarily from around 2011/12 when austerity had been part of our lives long enough to both be embedded and worthy of discussion: when would it end. It was noted that CEOs were looking at ways to pick up morale and motivation amongst their people. This had resulted in a scenario where interest in the concept of engagement, and subsequent business performance, reached an all-time high.

So, CV writers and business managers at all levels, it seems, need to be more of an influencer than someone who performs better alone. Does that mean that, in motivational terms, we expect the successful manager to have a greater need for power than a need to achieve? Perhaps. But there must be other qualities besides the need for power that go into the makeup of a good manager. The most senior managers of a company must possess a high need for power—that is, a concern for influencing people. However, this must be disciplined and controlled so that it is directed toward the benefit of the organisation not for the manager’s own satisfaction or feeling of self-worth. The need for power ought to be greater than his or her need to be liked. And the analogy remains intact: all of this applies to the sole trader CV writer – or just writer – who manages themselves, as it does to a corporate executive. The management structure is different, the need to manage the circumstances effectively is not.

So, which motivation patterns in people make for the best managers? Bearing in mind our previous mention of dictatorial style, we assume for here that when we talk about power, we are not talking about that need a manager may have but about the need – and want – to be strong and influential.

One way to determine how effective managers are is to ask the people who work for them, to establish the most evident characteristics as seen by their team (members). How fixed on sticking to the rules is the manager? How much freedom to be innovative and work on their own initiative is the employee given? What emphasis does the manager place on performance? And, vitally, and, for us, at the heart, how good or strong does the employee feel is the team’s motivation? In the case of a CV writer, I am both the manager (of the relationship) and the employee (as the contractor): again, equally valid in the freelance or corporate context.

Performance measures will vary from organisation to organisation – NHS vs private healthcare, military frontline vs military suppliers, medical staff vs medical managers – and it can therefore be difficult to rate managerial effectiveness in, say, production, marketing, finance, or research and development. I worked recently with a Ph.D. research scientist who led small teams in a lab. How do you measure that managerial performance? I think the best metric of a manager’s effectiveness is contextual: the climate he or she creates in the office, reflected in the morale of subordinates.

Almost by definition, a good manager is one who, among other things, helps subordinates feel strong and responsible, rewards them properly for good performance, and sees that things are organised so that subordinates feel they know what they should be doing. Above all, managers should foster among subordinates a strong sense of team spirit, of pride in working as part of a team. If a manager creates and encourages this spirit, his or her subordinates certainly should perform better.

If a CV writer were to read that last paragraph, they would agree that it applies both them as their own manager, their management of the client relationship, and their management of the client himself/herself so that he/she fits the process. If J.K. Rowling couldn’t form a relationship which she felt to be manageable, with her publisher, would either have worked for and with the other. Certainly not.

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Nigel Benson is a professional career sector specialist with over 12 years' experience writing executive level CVs and expertise in recruitment, job interviews and training.

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