The truth about motivation and the employment of motivated idiots

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The current obsession with engagement and motivation is evident every time you read the business media these days. This is understandable in many ways, not least because it seems true that firms and employees are often working in an atmosphere of mistrust. But one thing that is often noticeable when a profession such as HR gets itself into a debate of this nature is the gap that can exist between practitioners and everybody else proffering a view. So while academics can talk about definitions and suppliers seek to apply their solutions to the issue, it is often down to those who work at the sharp end to dish up the truth, however unpalatable or cynical that can seem to be. One of the best and funniest quotes on the matter was something that once appeared in a small piece in Human Resources magazine, in which Vance Kearney the HR Director EMEA for Oracle said ‘the only thing worse than employing an idiot is employing an engaged and motivated idiot’.

It’s a genuine coup de grace, not only with regard to the matter of employee engagement for HR professionals,  but as a distillation of the thinking that should apply in issues across a range of disciplines. Kearney is emphasising that engagement is not a fundamental issue in the same way as employing the right people in the first place. It’s one of the things you only need to worry about when you’ve got the basics right.

Even then, you have to be aware of other fundamental issues such as timing. As this recent strand of thought in Personnel Today highlighted, trying to engage people who are worried about their job security is likely to be counterproductive. It reports on a note from the turn of the year by consultant John Philpott that  ‘workplace disgruntlement in the private sector will take the form of simmering  distrust of bosses, especially those who adopt the trendy management speak mantra of  ‘employee engagement’ while piling the pressure on overstretched staff.’

The same rules apply for issues such as workplace design which will not motivate or increase the performance of people who are concerned about their jobs, don’t like what they do or the culture in which they work. What drives us is far too complex to be ascribed to anyone issue as this film from the RSA shows, and that includes what you might assume is a basic issue such as pay.

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