“Highly motivated” is a common requirement on job descriptions, but in reality, “built-in” motivation is a myth. While an employee’s internal drive is important, the other half of the equation is a joint effort by the employee and the manager to foster a productive workplace.
Employee engagement is a top buzzword of recent years, and there are many obvious killers of motivation: below-market pay, crushing workload, delayed wages, unfair management practices, and oppressive bureaucracy. But for highly paid top performers, some team managers miss more subtle killers of motivation. In an increasingly competitive job market, these top employees have more options than ever, so it is important to address motivation killers and build a productive, healthy environment that lets high performers shine.
1. Unclear advancement plans
In the modern high-level interview, hiring managers often ask for a prospective employee’s career goals. Not everyone wants to go into management, so this interview question is critical in uncovering what motivates the employee. However, many managers never follow up on this initial conversation.
Regularly discussing where the employee wants to go and how to get there is important, but it is only the start. High achievers are good at setting and reaching goals, so they need to have measurable targets to hit and a specific timeline. If an employee feels they are indefinitely treading water, or that they have no prospects for advancement at their current company, they will move on. Tip the balance by giving top performers a realistic idea of their growth timeline and what they can expect as a reward for their hard work.
2. Unaddressed conflict
High performers often have well-rounded communication skills and are good at coping with set-backs and frustrations. That said, a toxic work environment will quickly frustrate someone who is trying to focus on achieving good results in their job. A sudden change in an employee’s performance or an abrupt drop-off in communication is a telltale sign of a toxic situation. Toxic workplaces kill employee engagement.
Promptly address conflict. Meet face-to-face with involved employees and be prepared to discuss what is bothering them in honest, blunt terms. Many times, good communication with a mediator will take the fire out of a bad situation. At other times, more drastic measures are required. Either way, when a top employee is sending distress signals, ignoring the problem destroys trust along with motivation.
3. Lack of feedback and/or indifference to new ideas
When employees come up with new ideas and find new ways of doing things, it is a sure sign that they have good motivation and are engaged in their jobs. A quick way to kill that motivation is to gloss over their ideas. Even if the idea is totally unworkable, enthusiastic acknowledgement of their effort is critical.
Meet regularly with high-performing employees, not just to assess performance, but to build trust so that the employee feels confident enough to share new ideas. Top performers often provide advice that is just as good as a pricey consultant.
4. Poor industry reputation
A company rarely has a bad reputation without something else being wrong. Negative press or a poor financial outlook can cause employees to start searching before a crisis hits. This correlation is stronger with senior executives. Executives are generally more in tune with market conditions and the company’s industry reputation. Senior employees are also impacted more strongly by performance-based bonuses and budget cuts, so a stream of bad press can jumpstart a new job search.
Interestingly, the past few years have seen the market become much more politicized. In a report titled “The Dawn of CEO Activism,” KRC Research found that almost 40% of American consumers say CEOs have a responsibility to publicly address hot-button political issues. Depending on whether employees support or oppose their company’s views, political involvement can bolster or kill motivation. Senior executives in particular may come under fire for comments by the company, or have to clean up messes as a result of an unpopular comment.
In fast-moving industries with shorter tenure, especially technology, top performers look ahead to make sure that the experience they are building now can get them a job down the road. Tech professionals have learned the hard way that even giants like Myspace and Netscape can hit hard times and turn a star resume into one that looks dated and unfashionable.
5. Being passed over for a key promotion
Top performers are less of a flight risk than underperformers. However, sudden departures are often due to missing out on a promotion or award. If a hiring manager is interviewing internally and interviews three top performers for a juicy promotion, and only one of them gets it, the hiring manager risks losing his other two top performers. The solution is to take time to give them a good explanation as to why they were passed over. Reevaluate their career path within the organization together with them.
Ironically, top employees sometimes leave because of a promotion or salary increase! The HR analytics software Workday found that a significant percentage of high-performing employees had a higher risk of leaving the company after a promotion.
Several scenarios can cause this phenomenon:
- After transitioning into the new role, the employee runs into one of the problems above.
- The employee takes on more responsibility than they could manage.
- The promotion or raise comes too late or fails to meet expectations.
- The new job title or award makes the employee more attractive to recruiters or motivates them to explore even better options outside the company.
When interviewing internal candidates for a high-level position, it is critical to spend time with the rejected candidates to reevaluate their growth plan within the company, so they do not take it as a sign to move on.
6. Insufficient mentorship or development opportunities
Networking is still the #1 way that people get a new job or advance at their current one. It is important to help top employees build mentor relationships within the company.
A mentor fulfills many roles in an employee’s professional life: they coach, train, give advice, brainstorm, encourage, and correct. Having strong professional relationships within an organization is a powerful incentive for a high achiever to work hard and stay with the company.
By contrast, companies who fail to invest in their top employees’ growth lose twice. Their top people gravitate to the competition, and they fail to attract top employees to replace them. Today’s employee knows that demand for new skills is fierce. Top employees have to reinvent themselves several times in the course of their careers. If an employer is not investing their skills, they lose the motivation to invest their best effort in growing the company.
7. Too little work or uninteresting projects
A mediocre employee will happily take a paycheck without enough work to keep them busy. Top performers want to be challenged. Even if an employee believes wholeheartedly in the company’s mission and loves their work, they will quickly become frustrated if they are bored or perceive that their work is unimportant.
If a high performer is consistently hitting goals without much effort, they have outgrown their current role. It can be tempting to keep them where they are to save the cost of replacing them when they move up the ladder, but this will frustrate the employee and usually lead to a drop in performance or a resignation letter. Reward employees’ growth by helping them to reach their desired career goals.
Many employees would rather leave than complain, so pay attention to early warning signs. Do not rely on employees to set their own workloads. It is the manager’s job to invest time in the employee to match their workload to their ability, drive, and personality. Find out what aspects of a project or of a client the employee enjoys working with, and seek out ways to maximize it for that employee. The investment is well worth it. Motivated employees who like their jobs will happily go to bat for their company to get the best results.
Change is difficult, and even top employees are reluctant to jump into a long job search process that may or may not pay off. A high performer will send many signs before they feel frustrated enough to start job-searching. Employee engagement takes an investment of time, thought, and resources. But the reward is that a manager who engages employees will have far better results to show than a manager who focuses on the results instead of on the people who produce them.