Do great employers hire the most motivated staff? Not necessarily

It’s a common trope of business motivational writing that GREAT companies do GREAT things such as [produce your own list of what sounds GREAT]. When you then look for the evidence of these things, it turns out that not only is the evidence unavailable, but no one is actually gathering it.

One of the versions of this trope is ‘Great companies hire motivated staff’, which is also a version of ‘Four star people hire three star people. Five star people hire five star people’.

I’ve interviewed a lot of people for jobs, and sifted through more than a thousand closely written application forms. For one admin job, we received 158 applications. For a graphic design job, 97. I think it would be rather crass to suggest that the people we hired were five star, and the others some lesser category.

But what about motivation? Is this the key employee quality? Should we hire on that, and does it define us as an organisation whether we do or not?

I have to say I disagree.

Good companies may hire motivated people. Great companies motivate people whether they were motivated to begin with or not. There are lots of people out there who, for whatever reason, are currently lacking motivation. They may have been through depression, have been damaged by a previous re-organisation elsewhere, be going through bad personal circumstances, or for whatever other reason.

I had the privilege in two organisations within the NHS of being part of a team which lifted one organisation from bottom 5% for staff motivation to being the top #1, all within two years, and, in another organisation, for helping to lift staff motivation from bottom 10% to top 10% within 18 months.
Most people go through cycles of motivation during their careers, but a great organisation can make work meaningful and inspiring even when a person is at a low ebb. Great organisations are empowering communities, not merely successful cherry-pickers of motivated recruits.

The NHS is perhaps a little unusual. There really aren’t enough nurses to go around, which is why it recruits heavily among overseas staff (and would collapse if it couldn’t have them). There are perennial dire warnings about the demographics of GPs. What’s more, the relatively frequent reorganisations mean that staff and employers are often put together by TUPE who did not choose each other. Whether the staff you get are motivated or not may depend much more on the predecessor organisation than on your hiring skills.

Let me say here that, by comparison with averages for the private sector, the NHS scores very highly for staff motivation in its annual staff surveys (though, like most of the public sector, it also tends to have more staff sickness, which is often a corollary of low motivation). As my old boss used to point out, no one in the NHS comes to work with the intention of doing a bad job. As an organisation dedicated to caring for people based on their need rather than their profitability, it should not really be a surprise that most people who work there do it because they think what they are doing is important.

Nonetheless, there are some quite significant variations from organisation to organisation, and also from type of organisation to type of organisation. Some kinds of work are intrinsically more draining than others. While most jobs involve periods of greater stress, the job of a paramedic, for example, is always about stress. In most instances, they are either attending a call in order to save a life, or attending a call which turns out to have been a waste of time — such as the occasion when a resident rang up to say she had a broken leg. When the paramedics arrived, the lightbulb on her staircase had gone and she wanted it changed. She argued that if it wasn’t, she could fall and would break her leg. It would be hard to imagine a more demotivating situation for the staff who attended.

The NHS is quite a good testing ground for theories about staff motivation. With 1.8 million employees in England, even quite small organisations (by NHS standards) can be employing thousands of staff. One of my observations is that very few management mantras (like the one about the five star people) can be applied in a blanket fashion. Another is that there is very rarely a single factor to point at (which is what management mantras generally attempt to do).

However, given that two of the organisations I had the privilege of serving with did manage to ‘move the needle’, I should perhaps offer a couple of thoughts about how some do manage to motivate previously demotivated staff.

Here are my observations:

  1. It is worth investing in how you treat your staff.
    I was myself at quite a low ebb when a new chief executive bobbed up in the organisation I was in. One of the first things he said to the senior team was that his previous organisation was in the top 10% for how it treated its staff, and he was going to do the same for us. At the time we were in the bottom 5%. I have to say I didn’t entirely believe it was going to be possible. Nonetheless, a year later we moved from being a borderline pass on the Improving Working Lives (IWL) standard to being just 1½ % off the theoretical maximum score in the enhanced standard, and (as we understood) the top organisation in the NHS. It was a year after that our staff satisfaction scores put us the number one in our comparator group.
    What’s really interesting is that he didn’t say ‘top 10% for staff motivation’ (which would have made it up to the staff) but ‘top 10% for how we treat our staff’, which made it our responsibility.  That was what the IWL standard measured as well.
  2. Build in many places…
    The IWL standard was interesting because it examined a range of things. If memory serves me right, there were 14 different areas, and each of these were broken down into sub-categories. A mammoth effort in one area would not have shifted the dial. As a title for a book “198 different aspects of how to create a better working life for your staff” is probably never going to be as big a seller as “The One Thing You Need for a Motivated Workforce”, but my experience in the NHS, in charities and in the private sector is that doing 198 things quite well creates a bigger change than doing one thing absurdly well and leaving the rest look after themselves.
  3. …and they will come, in time
    Staff motivation, as measured by staff surveys, in my experience, tends to lag, for better or for worse, about a year behind the things you do to influence it. Acknowledging the contribution of the Communications team that helped to facilitate it tends to lag two years behind. Staff engagement is never going to be a quick fix. After all, these are the people who know more about your organisation than anyone else, who have watched leaders come and go, who have seen many promises made and perhaps fewer fulfilled. If previously demotivated, they are the most cynical observers, if highly motivated, they are the most persistent champions.
  4. Ask them
    Our journey into comparative bliss began with a focus group day entitled ‘There is Such a Thing as a Free Lunch’ which, as it happened, included lunch. What was important about it was that, based on our 14 areas, we asked a lot of questions, listened to a lot of discussion, and went away and implemented what we learned. This might seem obvious, but it shouldn’t be: many learning exercises in many organisations are conducted without any real impact on what is done. They are used to confirm plans already in motion, not to direct them. One of my actions was to go off and create an intranet based around how the organisation perceived itself. We called it The Street, because someone had said that the organisation was like a commercial High Street, where people were all working away in their own buildings, but had no idea what people were doing in the other buildings.
  5. Trust them
    The aforementioned intranet, The Street, had three components. One was a searchable shared drive (it was the 2000s) which contained all of our policies and other corporate documents, so people could get them whenever they wanted. It took the time to find something down from ten minutes to just a few seconds. One was micro-sites for each department, so they could tell each other what they were doing (each one was a ‘building’). The other was open forums.
    Subsequently, after everyone started to want to know about how we were making the progress we were making, we did conferences about intranets. It was always open forums that scared senior managers in other organisations. The underlying fear was ‘if we allow people to say anything they want, won’t they just complain?’ Given that we were coming from a very low level of staff motivation (compared with the rest of the NHS), that could particularly have been a problem for us. But it never was. There were three elements to this. First, a very simple policy. We told our colleagues that they could put anything they liked, as long as it wasn’t illegal, unprofessional or offensive. Nobody had to trawl through pages of policy documents to find out what they could do. Second, we guaranteed anonymity. Rather than linking their intranet user names to their Outlook logins, we let people sign up with whatever name they wanted, as long as it wasn’t impersonating another member of staff (which would be unprofessional) or was an offensive word. They could even have more than one login, if, for example, they wanted to say some things anonymously. You might imagine that this would be a greater incentive to complain, but it wasn’t. The third element was that the forums were humanised. The Chief Executive had a ‘café’ with his name on it, and he got involved in conversations that took place there, rather like a café owner might with his regulars. When people did have something they wanted to raise, they did it in much the same way that they would have done if he was in the room. Over the years that followed we explored all kinds of issues on the forums, as well as buying and selling lots of second hand goods (the Swap Shop was always the most popular) and telling many jokes (the Comedy Club was the second most popular). We were also able to do a car park consultation, which, for those who have never done one, is the most contentious staff issue in most NHS organisations. One of the responses literally brought a tear to my eye. Someone said ‘In the past I wouldn’t have thought anyone was listening, but now I know you are…’ and, later, in regard to an unresolved car parking issue from years before ‘I know that would never happen now’. In the four years The Street ran before I moved to a different organisation, we never had to go down a disciplinary route for things posted there. In just three or four cases we had to warn someone.
  6. Reward them
    Reward and recognition programmes may seem twee, but when an unsung hero goes to the front of a room with 300 people in it to receive an award from the Chair, and everyone applauds, it’s worth any amount of internal newsletters and motivational emails. It’s not about the value of the award, it’s about the fact that the organisation, without any cynicism or qualification, acknowledges people for what they put into it, irrespective of status or time served.
  7. Keep talking
    While communicating more is not itself the answer, open channels of communication are essential if an organisation is to be self-motivating. Many organisations are quite good at downwards communication, from management to staff, reasonably good at upwards communication, going the other way, and terrible at sideways communication, where staff who don’t work with each other share their thoughts with each other. Up-down, whether you have a traditional pyramid structure or a management-trendy inverted pyramid, is fundamentally hierarchical. There is a necessity to that, organisationally, but the ground swell of ‘we are all in this together’ comes when everyone feels they can talk to everyone. In another organisation the directors invited everyone to coffee on Tuesday mornings, and spent most of their time pouring the coffee. The point was not for staff to meet directors, nor even for directors to demonstrate servant leadership (itself essential to any genuine change in how an organisation sees itself) by pouring the coffee, but so that people could mingle, chat, joke and get to know each other.
    Hard-pressed communications teams should remember that everything should be ‘as human as possible’. When cross-organisational communication is discussed, many departments will immediately decide they want a newsletter, facilitated by the comms team. Most of these newsletters will only last a few issues, and more time will be spent creating them than is ever spent reading them. That’s not what I mean by sideways communication. Simply organising space so that people eat their lunch together, and creating opportunities for them to mingle will do far more than any number of newsletters might.

Well, those are seven observations. You might ask, is this just opinion, or is it evidence based? Actually, both. We evaluated projects rigorously over the years and got some very accurate numerical pictures of what was going on, and were able to correlate with changes in perception internally and externally. On the other hand, what you take a way from those kinds of evaluations is all a matter of opinion. These are my view. I welcome others.

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