Roles and challenges

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Written by Pam Jones, Jan Rabbetts and Viki Holton on 1 April 2013 in Features

Pam Jones, Jan Rabbetts and Viki Holton examine the part managers play in engaging employees

A motivated individual is worth their weight in gold." The saying is true - so why do some organisations fail to see how important this is? What is the manager's role in motivating others and what motivates them personally? It' s also useful to remind organisations about the challenges that managers face when they are seeking to motivate and engage their colleagues. This article discusses these questions and looks at some recent Ashridge research findings.

Most of us can see the difference in a business in which people are professional, keen and enthusiastic, and focused on helping each other, with a desire to create a great customer experience that invariably generates high levels of energy. It's often a great place to work and you'll hear managers talk many years later about how good it was to work with a particular team, manager or in a part of the business in which they were really valued and everybody was motivated.

The opposite - where staff feel ambiguously, or even negatively, about their employer - invariably has an impact on staff morale. There is little interest in doing more than the minimum and the phrase 'that's not my job…' is heard more often, to explain why individuals won't do something, than 'what can I do to help?'

One manager described such an atmosphere: "It's kept rather low-key here but many staff pride themselves on being cynical and do not trust anything the senior team says! The impact of business problems over a number of years has created two opposing sides and a bad environment."

There seem broadly to be four types of organisations. The best are those that fully understand how important the topic is and spend a good deal of time and effort working with managers to embed it in the culture. Another type talk about employee engagement but in reality pay 'lip service' to it; this group would also include businesses in which formal policies and processes exist but don't get translated into action in the workplace. This often creates a bad atmosphere as staff may feel exploited and cynical about the values that the organisation claims to have.

A third group believe employee engagement is irrelevant to business success, while there is a fourth group of organisations with good intentions but, due to lack of organisational support, are unable to consistently deliver on engagement.

As one senior manager explained: "When people join us they are full of enthusiasm and motivation - they are the crème de la crème; they have won a place with us against stiff competition - but once they join, we then proceed to undermine their motivation. So much so that, often, they only stay with us because of the 'golden handcuffs' of an excellent salary or the intellectual atmosphere we work in."

Which type of organisation do you work in?

  • aligned Your policies and processes are embedded in the organisation. Managers are trained and aware of the value of motivation and engagement in delivering organisational success
  • lost opportunity/lost potential You have good policies and procedures but managers are just focused on task delivery and don't take the time to actively motivate others
  • motivational apathy The organisation neither provides support nor encourages managers to recognise their role in motivating and engaging others
  • hit and miss The level of motivation in departments and teams is totally dependent on the quality of the individual managers and team leaders.

The best organisations develop a consistent approach that their managers can understand and buy into - if this doesn't happen, there is likely to be a loss of talent, and the potential that demotivation can ultimately affect both individual and organisational performance.

So what can organisations, as well as L&D professionals, do to improve employee engagement and motivation? In the recent 2012 Ashridge Management Index, we found high levels of employee engagement among the 1,100 individuals who completed the survey. For example, just over 90 per cent say they are proud to work for their organisation. But although the majority of respondents say their organisation's approach to motivating them is right, just over a third disagree and some of the issues are identified here:

"My organisation should involve me and my peer group more in the strategic direction of the organisation… I have a start-up company but am often treated more as a middle manager and excluded from group-level discussions. This is not motivating."

"We need a greater focus on people. I feel we are paying lip service to staff retention and development."

"Constructive feedback is rare here - only a few individuals in my company seem to understand what this is."

It's a worrying finding and, in order to understand more about the issues, we talked to groups of delegates attending Ashridge programmes towards the end of last year, and asked them to reflect on their own experiences. We wanted to know what helped them motivate their staff as well as what was important for their own motivation.

What motivates individual managers

The perceived wisdom is that money is the key motivator for executives. This may well be true for some but, when many of the managers describe key events or projects that had motivated them, there seem to be a range of other issues that are important.

Many of their stories concerned major events that people remembered from a long time ago. For one person, it was something that happened early on in his career; another talked about a brilliant project in an earlier company, "where we had to suddenly launch a big communications project within a very short space of time; we had to design everything from scratch. It was a difficult challenge to present some information to the local community. We all knew it was controversial, our deadline was fixed and it was a short timeframe, and we had to be successful. At the beginning it seemed almost impossible that we would succeed - but we did!"

Another person highlighted the importance of his manager, "who was a good communicator and involved everyone". It also makes a difference when someone is a key player: "My ideas were listened to and I felt valued… I could see how my contribution was useful."

These views echo some previous Ashridge research highlighting that managers value challenge, involvement and recognition. However, their view was that their organisations focused mostly on areas such as pay and performance. Perhaps if organisations spent more time working on work content and autonomy, it would ensure that more people were working in the top-right 'aligned' box shown in Figure 1.

Now we look at the issues that managers highlight when it comes to their own role in motivating staff and colleagues.

What managers say about motivating others

One comment made highlights a key issue for employee engagement as well as something that affects L&D more generally - that managers do not have enough time to focus on these issues. Their workplace is often so busy that there is little space for reflection, development and discussion and this is where L&D professionals could help, for example by developing an assessment tool/exercise that managers can use to help them think through motivation. A few ideas, as well as questions and answers, would be particularly helpful for younger, less experienced managers.

It also seems that some managers have little freedom (or budget) when it comes to motivating their staff: "I will sometimes bring in doughnuts for everyone in the team but this isn't on company expenses, I do it out of my own pocket as a small way to show people that they really are appreciated." Others also mentioned similar small 'thank-you' gifts. There may be more freedom in smaller firms: "In the company where my wife works, the boss will sometimes come round the office and give people tickets for themselves and their partners for a short trip away to say 'thank-you'. She recently received tickets for a trip to Iceland."

Another important aspect for managers to consider is their personal impact on team motivation. One manager recalled a piece of advice from a previous boss: "Never walk through your team without a smile on your face." This may seem trite but the power of amplification has an important place in motivating others - how a manager acts and what he says often gets amplified by the team; acting positive and motivated will have a positive impact on others. One manager who managed a virtual team talked about the effort she puts into sending emails with a positive and friendly feel to them: "Email is an important motivational tool for me as I don't see my team, so I need to use it well."

Some of the managers realised that the single model of motivation they had used in the past does not work as well as a wider approach: "I've spent all my years as a manager working on the principle of 'treating people as I wanted to be treated myself' but now I understand that this is not necessarily the right approach. It would be much better to think about 'how people want to be treated' and to ask explicitly what people would appreciate. Some would like more responsibility, as I've always wanted, but for others in my team this would be the last thing they want. In fact, it would be very stressful for them. Their needs are different and it might be having a stronger team around them to support them at key phases of a big project."

Getting it right

Motivation is not always easy to get right, for example one manager mentioned that his organisation will only give 'time off in lieu' for the extra hours worked (rather than money) but then staff are not allowed to take this time as everyone is so busy! A cruel, 'cat and mouse' approach that's likely to demotivate even the most positive individual.

When giving 'rewards' after a tough project or extra effort, make sure it's appropriate. We heard of one organisation in which staff who had spent long hours working late, away from their family, were rewarded by being taken out for a special meal. The gift sounded fine but it was an evening event, so it was simply yet another evening working late, away from the family. None of the staff involved described it as a reward!

Motivational ideas have to be both appropriate to the individuals and the organisation for which they work. A good example was in an organisation with a fixed busy time: "We are most likely to sell our products in the few weeks leading up to Christmas so it' s a short window of opportunity and means that everything and everybody gets a bit frantic. However, we decided to make a virtue out of this and encourage friendly competitions each day - who's sold the most, who took the biggest order, etc. Staff enjoy this, we celebrate the successes at the end of each day, and it creates a nice atmosphere in our office."

A number of managers highlighted ways that some of their well-meaning intentions went wrong. Of course, this does not mean that managers should give up their good intentions with regard to motivation, rather that they need to be crystal clear with all concerned about the purpose of what's planned.

It's perhaps worth emphasising that the majority of the managers in the Ashridge survey - and in our discussion groups - are experienced but yet still they say it's hard to motivate staff. We believe, therefore, it may be harder for managers who are newly appointed. There never seems to be enough time for these key 'people' issues - for example checking whether staff share the managers' assumptions about motivation and engagement. Having good systems and procedures is not enough; L&D professionals need to support managers and help them to realise that time spent motivating people is time spent focusing on the bottom line. If they can help the organisation to be more aligned in their approach to motivation (Figure 1 above), it will help to develop and grow talent and performance throughout the organisation.

The role of the organisation

The aim of this short article is to examine the manager's important role in motivation. However, the manager is not the only one responsible for employee engagement; it is simply that managers can play a key role in what happens. Motivation and engagement is not an activity, it is a core value and way of life for managers and organisations who want to deliver results through, and with, others. Our research has also shown just how difficult it is to motivate others and how easily efforts can be misunderstood.

Given that most of us are working in challenging environments, motivation is more important than ever. It is the ingredient that can help to retain the best talent, deliver bottom-line results and create a positive environment in the workplace. As L&D professionals, we have an important role in helping managers to make sense of how to motivate others, and to provide them with the support and autonomy to ensure that they recognise their role in delivering employee engagement.

About the author

Pam Jones, Jan Rabbetts and Viki Holton are respectively a client director, associate and research fellow at Ashridge Business School. They can be contacted via


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