- Feedback can negatively impact performance in the workplace.
- Effective listening tends to improve work outcomes and can help discover barriers to intrinsic motivation.
- Listening with an open mind and a sincere interest to help employees succeed can improve performance and even workplace culture.
Annual performance appraisals can have negative consequences on the workplace (Itzchakov & Kluger, 2018).
Giving feedback often implies telling an employee what they’re doing wrong, which can, in turn, create stress and a defensive response in the employee, making it harder for them to see another person’s perspective. That is not to say that one should dispense with telling, advising, guiding, or pointing out consequences to one’s action or inaction. Rather, the ongoing process of improving performance should explicitly and intentionally include more listening. Effective listening builds trust and job satisfaction and improves creativity (Itzchakov & Kluger, 2018), especially when done year-round, as opposed to only when there is a perceived problem or during performance appraisal.
Deci and Ryan’s Self-Determination theory on motivation (1985) states that the energy to complete tasks depends on competence, autonomy, and relatedness (the perceived importance of the task). What happens, though, if there is a disconnect between expected and actual performance despite all three needs being met?
For example, if the supervisor believes that the employee has the skills and knowledge (competence) to do the job, understands the importance of doing the job well (relatedness), and has the ability to make the decisions needed to get the job done (autonomy) and performance is still below expectations, what can the supervisor do?
In this case, listening can help the supervisor to discover deeper issues that affect performance. Effective listening requires the supervisor to dispense with their preconceived notions and judgments about the employee and to be open to discovering the disconnect. What are the possible sources of motivational disconnect? Here are a few examples to explore:
We may erroneously assume the employee has the knowledge and skills they need to do the job well. Those assumptions may stem from one of the following beliefs:
- They’ve done their previous task/job well so they should do this different task/role well. Often we promote the top performer into a leadership or management role, forgetting that the two usually do not require the same knowledge or skill set. Also, circumstances change (think: pandemic) and the employee may need help to adjust and adapt.
- It’s easy for me; it should be easy for you. Remember, we all have different strengths and talents, and what comes easily to me is not necessarily easy for others.
- Your life circumstances are irrelevant. Health or other personal issues may erode one’s ability to do a task. Here is where building trust over time will enable an honest discourse about what is at issue.
We may assume that the employee has the input and decision-making authority that is needed for them to do their job well. Inquiring specifically where they think improvements can be made can promote autonomy and intrinsic motivation within the employee. Their answers and insights may also reveal new opportunities that would’ve been missed otherwise.
Autonomy also means acting in alignment with one’s identity—i.e., they can do the job in a way that works for their personality, passions, and preferences. Poor productivity could result if there is a mismatch between the work and their authentic self. Curious listening can help the supervisor determine whether adjustments in the task or job description can produce greater alignment between the worker’s values, passions, strengths, and interests and their responsibilities. Though a 100 percent match is unlikely, the greater the alignment, the greater the employee’s intrinsic motivation will be. Failure to find or create significant alignment is a recipe for burnout over the long haul.
Relatedness refers to the meaning or importance of the work. The importance can be personal, interpersonal, and/or organizational. For example, the work may be very important to the employee so they can maintain their status, financial stability, or do the work they love. It may also be important because their work impacts others’ ability to do their job within the organization. The work may also have a meaningful impact on customers or society.
Employers may assume that this importance is evident to employees, but that may not always be the case. Helping employees experience first-hand the importance of their work increases intrinsic motivation.
Supervisors may also assume that the work is meaningful to the employee since it is meaningful to them. You might be saving lives, but if the employee cares more about creating art or saving endangered species, you may have poor alignment in relatedness that will not be solved by more visits to hospitals or nursing homes.
Deep listening enables the possibility of alignment of values, passions, and strengths with their responsibilities. Novel roles and opportunities can be discovered by tapping into hidden strengths and passions to address existing challenges. For example, the aspiring artist might enjoy contributing to visual media and communications projects, especially if professional education opportunities are provided to support the success of the new venture. While they nominally may spend less time focused on their other duties, their energy and motivation may elevate and pay off in the long run.
Though such efforts are not guaranteed to improve motivation, a sincere and good faith effort to honor others’ needs and development builds trust and commitment, also important factors in employee motivation. Such behaviors are not lost on others and are worthy investments in organizational culture.
And as the great Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behavior. New York: Plenum Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4899-2271-7
Itzchakov, G., & Avi) Kluger, Avraham N. (2018). The Power of Listening in Helping People Change. Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, 2–7.