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  • Adele

Why is employee engagement not about driving performance?

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Did you think that employee engagement was about dangling as many juicy carrots as possible and hoping that everyone chomps their way through them??

What happens fIf you do that? What happens when the carrots are all eaten up? Will everyone be satisfied? Will they stay performing in over drive or will they take their foot of the gas and relax until you find a bigger carrot to dangle next time?

You don’t want a stop / start approach to performance. You want a continually high performing team that is always striving for excellence but without you dangling huge bunches of carrots in front of them!

Employee engagement is about creating a culture that allows people to thrive, develop, flourish and achieve. Employee engagement enables a place to exist where high performance comes naturally.

For years we have relied on motivational theories based on the work of Maslow, McGregor, Hertz, McClelland, Vroom etc. (if you want to know more about these, checkout this simple summary here: ( Put extremely simply, what we have learned from these theorists is that in order to be motivated some basic needs (explained in each theory) must be met.

So in the last 10 years, the latest shift in employee engagement is the understanding that maybe you cannot actually motivate an employee, they are already motivated. This shift is the most significant in the last 30 years.

How often have you heard managers looking for new ways to motivate and incentivise employees to 'perform', but now we are finding that people are already motivated, just by different factors.

Autonomy, Relatedness and Competence

In her book “Why Motivating People Doesn't Work . . . and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging”, Susan Fowler explains beautifully in 3 simple words what psychological needs must be met in each workplace in order to achieve an engaged workforce:

Autonomy, Relatedness and Competence (ARC)

"Autonomy is our human need to perceive we have choices. It is our need to feel that what we are doing is of our own volition. It is our perception that we are the source of our actions"

"Relatedness is our need to care about and be cared about by others. It is our need to feel connected to others without concerns about ulterior motives. It is our need to feel that we are contributing to something greater than ourselves"

"Competence is our need to feel effective at meeting everyday challenges and opportunities. It is demonstrating skill over time. It is feeling a sense of growth and flourishing."

I would emphatically urge you to read Susan Fowler's book for a deeper understanding of what it means to satisfy Autonomy, Relatedness and Competence (ARC) in the workplace.

She explains how we all have a psychological need to learn, grow, develop, contribute, be part of a social situation and how business leaders can hinder this by traditional motivational techniques and taking away an environment conducive to these elements.

Worse still, when you undermine competence in people at work, you tend to affect other aspects of their life. Since most people spend around 75% of their lives doing something connected with their work (either being at work, travelling to work, training for work, socialising with work colleagues etc.) if their ARC psychological needs are not being satisfied it can have a wider impact on their lives outside work.

Do you really want to be responsible for an employee’s marriage break up because their disengagement at work had such an impact on their home life?

Do you think about that completely disagreeable employee who goes home every day to take out their frustrations on other family members?

We need to stop supplying our employees with 'motivational junk food' and instead we need to look to satisfy psychological needs and provide an environment where each employee can thrive... humans have a desire to thrive, grow and develop. But how many organisations still incentivise their managers related to performance?

References: Fowler, Susan (2014-09-30). Why Motivating People Doesn't Work . . . and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.

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