Mind of the Manager

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Want Motivated Employees? Offer Opportunities for Growth

The potential for growth can be a huge motivational difference maker.

I’ve long since come to the conclusion that I learn more about management from readers than I do from textbooks. As an example, in response to a recent article I did describing a study that closely linked employee engagement to management transparency (or candor), a reader, @MonteGaetano on Twitter, tweeted me the comment:

“Employees will always perform at their best when the environment is conducive to growth.”

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14 simple words. I don’t believe I’ve heard the core of employee motivation articulated more concisely.

The potential for growth is a huge motivational difference maker. The comment made me think about the various kinds of growth organizations can offer, and the role each play in motivation. Let’s consider four types:

Financial growth – Naturally. Goes almost without saying. Preferably incentivized to reward outstanding employee performance. Of course that’s not always possible, especially when times are lean and business is down. But even when major financial rewards aren’t forthcoming, other kinds of growth opportunities can still motivate.

Career growth – Talented people generally – not always but often, in my management experience – want to advance in an organization. There’s a memorable old advertising line, “Americans want to succeed, not merely survive.” (And incidentally so too does everyone else!) As a manager, not surprisingly, I found many individuals highly motivated by loftier titles, added responsibilities, plusher offices, the respect of others in the organization… the various components of career advancement.

Professional growth – Even aside from the tangible benefits of advancing in a company, good employees want to improve their skills and broaden their knowledge. Writers and researchers for Harvard Business Review have identified and described eloquently the motivational power of progress, the importance of making headway on a day-to-day basis. Whether employees are acquiring useful new skills or simply recording small workplace victories, such progress can motivate.

Personal growth – So-called “softer” aspects of life at work also play a constructive role in motivating. In essence, friendships matter. Studies have clearly shown that “peer praise” and a “fun work environment,” for example, are effective motivators, though it’s reasonable to assume these emotional components make more of a difference at lower organizational levels than at senior levels.

Point being, there are nuances here. Some growth opportunities appeal more to certain employee groups than to others. Some growth opportunities are costly. Others have a cost of zero.

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Employees perform best when the environment is conducive to growth. This simple statement tracks very closely with my own management experience. When growth opportunities were abundant and organizational doors open, employees worked with considerably more vigor than during times when for a variety of reasons (financial pressures, a crucible of an external environment, stressful restructurings, hiring freezes, etc.) opportunities were fewer or put on hold.

Macro-level employee engagement data is generally dismal, showing that nationally around 30% of employees are engaged with their work, meaning a healthy majority are disconnected and unmotivated.

There are simple questions for management to ask. Does your company (or at a micro level, your department) give careful thought to providing ample opportunities for growth? And if higher-price-tag financial and career advancement opportunities are constrained by competitive realities, does your organization still do all it reasonably can to foster professional and personal growth?

Costs can be limited but payback substantial. Growth opportunities take many forms, yet all can be of value to employees – and therefore to management.

This article first appeared at Forbes.com.

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You can follow Victor on Twitter for management-related news, tips and articles.

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Victor Lipman recently retired from the corporate world after 25 years with one of America's largest life insurance companies. He writes about management from a psychological perspective.

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