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What Motivates Your Employees?

It is ever more difficult to argue that motivating knowledge workers is not the Holy Grail for 21st century lab managers. “Leadership,” according to management consultants, “is the process of motivating people to work together to accomplish great things."

by F. Key Kidder
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It is ever more difficult to argue that motivating knowledge workers is not the Holy Grail for 21st century lab managers. “Leadership,” according to management consultants, “is the process of motivating people to work together to accomplish great things.”

Motivation is the juice that drives production, performance and innovation, the elixir that lets managers derive success through others—a fact that great managers understand and exploit.

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Motivation cannot be prescribed or enforced, only enabled, and it doesn’t come easily. As if motivating knowledge workers in close proximity isn’t challenging enough, more managers must now motivate staff sight unseen, half a world away, as their purview expands to include external global partners and industry-academic collaborations, while also dealing with the distinctly different preferences of the intergenerational workforce mix.

The art of motivation has come a long way since the old carrot-and-stick model—the hope of gain and fear of loss—that prevailed for centuries. Modern motivational theory coalesced mid-20th century as the study of human behavior advanced, and social and industrial psychologists added constructs.

Most fundamentally, today’s best motivational practices for knowledge workers embrace intrinsic factors— autonomy, task significance and challenge, skill development, recognition—while generally assigning a lesser role to extrinsics such as remuneration and perks. Money matters but is not considered a sustaining incentive, since scientists seldom anticipate or aspire to personal wealth.

“There’s nothing massively new in motivation, more of an ebb and flow” of existing theory, says Barry Staw, an organizational management and behavior expert at the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Motivational paradigms are rooted in classic research:

  • Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (in ascending order: physiological, safety, belongingness, esteem and selfactualization), where workers become motivated afterlower-level needs are met and rise to fuller potential.
  • Herzberg’s motivator-hygiene theory of job satisfaction, in which basic hygienic or maintenance factors (salary, status, work conditions and relationships) are prerequisites that must first be met but cannot sustain motivation in and of themselves. In turn, they prime the pump for “job satisfiers,” such as achievement and recognition, both of which drive motivation.
  • Vroom’s expectancy theory, which posits that workers are motivated to the extent that management fulfills its end of the bargain and rewards them with an equitable and positive outcome or payoff for their effort. Outcomes must be in sync with individual wants and needs for motivation to continue.
  • Deming’s management theories, credited with driving Japan’s postwar boom, emphasized the need for management to recognize and nurture intrinsic motivators that naturally wring performance from human capital.
  • Hackman and Oldham’s model of job design, wherein challenging, meaningful work that utilizes and develops skills is motivational, particularly jobs with “task significance” where workers see product outcomes and emotionally connect with some greater good.
  • Goal-based motivational theories, assorted latecomers to the motivational knowledge base; the trick is aligning organizational objectives and staff proclivities.

In sum, scientific staff become more highly motivated and report higher levels of job satisfaction to the extent that management enables them to satisfy psychological wants and needs for autonomy, achievement, recognition and professional growth in an atmosphere that’s challenging and, well, fun—the intellectual joy of solving the puzzle— thus placing a premium on managers’ emotional intelligence and flexibility.

“We’ve known how to motivate knowledge workers for a while,” says Roger Mayer from N.C. State’s Poole College of Management. “The pieces have been out there. It just depends on how dedicated organizations are to revisiting what works, getting managers committed to that approach and continuously evolving” the approach “to motivate workers over the long run.”

It’s a tall order for managers, who effectively serve two masters, answering to the expectations of upper management and those of skilled staff apt to grow restive should motivation flag. Managers are tasked to master a complex dynamic of shifting motivational forces and operational levers—organizational variables, management objectives, and personal values and inclinations. For better or worse, managers are motivationally transforming. “Our research shows that individual managers influence overall motivation as much as any organizational policy,” says Nitin Nohria, dean of Harvard Business School.

Motivationally paramount indeed, but R&D managers are also beset by competing demands and dwindling resources and typically not endowed with abundant interpersonal skills; asking managers to attend to staff ’s emotional wants and needs can seem a real reach.

Their challenge is compounded by evolving personal values. “We all want different things at different times in our adult lives,” says Mayer. “Motivations change. It’s a moving target.”

Conventional thinking about the work preferences of academic and industrial scientists—and the motivational implications thereof—was challenged after Dr. Henry Sauermann from the Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Management plumbed the preferences of more than 400 science and engineering PhD students. His findings, released in 2010, cast doubt on the stereotypes of academic researchers being motivated by their appetite for a pure “taste for science” and industrial researchers being more engaged by considerations such as remuneration and access to resources. Sauermann found greater convergence of values than many previously suspected. His is a cautionary tale about finding the right fit; students who leap into careers before they really look can become demotivated.

Genencor is one employer that gets consistently high marks for motivating its workforce. The California-based biotech firm is renowned for its rich roster of motivational employee programs and light bureaucratic touch. “Our culture is employee-driven,” says Jim Sjoerdsma, executive vice president of human resources. “Workers are empowered to take ownership of different aspects of our work system.”

Scientists “need a lack of structure for creativity, and creative spaces, nontraditional conference rooms and things like that. And we allow some chaos to occur, and create a team environment and break down the hierarchy, and that keeps things fresh.” Companies “can really win with their culture,” says Sjoerdsma. “Besides being recognized as a great place to work, we realize a significant difference in every aspect of our financials.”

According to a recent study by global management consultants McKinsey & Co. that cited a widespread motivational workplace malaise, “noncash motivators” such as managerial praise and attention have attained greater workforce value, but “relatively few organizations have gone beyond the direct management of costs” to deal with the problem.

“One of the key issues is the natural inclination of managers to rely on mechanisms of control,” said Staw. “Tell people what to do and how to do it and create incentives, usually extrinsic, to motivate them.” And if things don’t go well, he says, managers double down, intensifying extrinsic pressures.

“We have a dominance of economic thinking … that’s been extended to trying to run the world. Economists weigh in about how to manage people. It’s dysfunctional. Extrinsic motivators can cause more damage than they solve. Emphasizing extrinsic motivators can drive out intrinsic ones. Even worse are economic and Skinnerian systems that work, but work too well, so behavior is narrowed to the point where you only get what you reward. There are multiple arrows in your quiver for motivation, but you’re only using 20 or 30 percent of them.”

Research into the linkages between creativity, task and motivation by Teresa Amabile, who heads up the Entrepreneurial Management Unit at Harvard Business School, posits the primacy of intrinsic incentives to drive innovation. Another Sauermann study of more than 11,000 scientists and engineers provides support, suggesting that R&D researchers actually work smarter if intrinsically motivated by the challenge at hand.

After Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi’s research into total task immersion, he gave performance coaches something new to think about in the 1990s with “flow,” his concept of the optimal motivational state.

He says flow, which has shown strong, documented correlation with performance enhancement, is completely focused motivation achieved most readily by individuals with specific personality traits: curiosity, persistence, low self-centeredness, and a high rate of performing activities for purely intrinsic reasons.

The demand for motivational magic recycles and repackages old thinking into new spin. In Daniel Pink’s best-seller “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” he brought new popularity to the art of intrinsic motivation, and proposed that everyman can reasonably aspire to peak performance—even with management still clutching a carrot and stick.

Elements of Pink’s message—dialogue and feedback from leaders enriches staff; such engagement is the “renewable energy of motivation”—echoes the recent research of Ethan Burris from the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business on giving staff “voice.”

Voice, says Burris, constitutes “prosocial” motivation, inspiration derived from its perceived impact on beneficiaries. “People speak up and identify problems with their work and want suggestions to improve” because they want to make a difference and impact beneficiaries. And when you can make that link more salient in scientist’s minds, then they really become committed and put the pedal to the metal.” Staff voice becomes critical as R&D systems move from a top-down to a bottom-up approach and a more decentralized decision-making structure.

Voice also satisfies staff need for “procedural justice,” says Burris, the perception that work systems are fair. But if managers solicit voice and ignore inputs, staff can withdraw psychologically, turn counterproductive or quit.

“Employers aren’t democracies,” says Mayer. “Workers can’t vote out management. But when management overrules workers (voice), they’re taking back the problem as their own, rather than the problem and the challenges being owned by the workers for them to solve.”

Adam Grant from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania is a fast-charging researcher who has “reinvigorated the emphasis on intrinsic motivation and things social,” says Staw. Even seemingly superficial interactions with beneficiaries increases motivation maintenance, says Grant, sustaining staff persistence on the winding research road. Prosocial motivation “can predict higher levels of (staff) performance,” and “managers play a critical role in shaping employees’ beliefs about the impact of their work on others.” Prosocially inclined staff who regularly receive “trust cues” from managers perform best, since higher levels of trust allow staff to buy into the manager’s vision of task significance and its potential beneficiaries, driving motivation.

“A key ingredient for management to motivate knowledge workers is earning their trust,” says Mayer, a trust scholar and consultant. “If employees don’t trust their managers, they continually have to think of ways to protect their vulnerabilities. To the extent employees’ minds are focused on self-protection, they are less able to focus attention on complex and creative tasks that need to be accomplished.”

A prosocial, communal orientation motivates staff in other ways, says Dr. Art Markman from the University of Texas, whose research includes motivation’s effects on performance. Markman touts labs that promote a shared, communal climate. “The PI needs to be seen as working for the benefit of everyone,” not just his or her own greater glory.