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Light the Fire Within, Not the Fire Below: Motivating and Engaging Employees

Michael D. Phillips, Ph.D. /

With the advent of the Pyeongchang Olympics, I am reminded of the tagline from the 2002 Winter Olympics we hosted in Utah: “Light the Fire Within.” I frequently refer to this phrase when working with an organization to improve employee motivation and engagement. However, to make this tagline more applicable to the workplace, I have added a few additional words: “Light the Fire Within, Not the Fire Below.”  When thinking about different perspectives on motivation, the hard-driving boss comes to mind immediately. I picture him/her insisting on lighting a fire under folks to get them going—usually in the form of threats and bullying. Not Surprisingly, experience tells us that this method of “motivation” rarely yields truly positive and sustainable results.

Motivating and engaging employees is among the most difficult endeavors faced by leaders. Study after study confirms, high employee engagement results in increased productivity, greater customer satisfaction, reduced absenteeism, lower turnover, and a far healthier work environment. Some have suggested that if your employees need motivating, you have the wrong employees. I have yet to encounter that workplace Nirvana.  So in the spirit of reality I would like to briefly touch on four critical concepts that have guided successful engagement strategies that I keep in mind when working to increase engagement, boost motivation, and truly light the fire within.

First: Engagement is a two-way street. The entire onus should not lie with the employer or the supervisor. Engagement is like the workings of gears—one gear cannot turn while the other is stuck in place. That results in a lot of grinding and destruction. Both employer and employee must engage and work together. However, leaders must establish an environment and culture where engagement is reciprocal and expected.

Second: Intrinsic and extrinsic motivators are significantly different. Many individuals are motivated by external factors like recognition and other incentives. Alternatively, some individuals are internally driven by having an impact, rising to a challenge, or living up to personal ideals. Wise and effective leaders understand most employees are engaged by some combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. They create an environment of engagement that leverages a variety of motivators.

Third: What engages people is unique; it varies for each group and employee. What is the best way to find out what motivates your employees? Ask them. You need to be close enough to your people to know how to engage them. I had the opportunity to help an organization determine the best way to reward a group of 750 front line workers for their excellent work on a difficult job. After numerous discussions and debates about what the workers might appreciate, we decided to ask them directly. We requested that employees complete a form and rank twenty different rewards based on what each of them preferred to receive.  The response was overwhelming and nearly unanimous, but the employees selected an option that leadership had not even considered among their top ten. In the end, we were able to reward the workers with what they had asked for, and as a result everyone was very happy.

Fourth: Recognize that what motivates you is probably different than what motivates your direct reports. Personally, I could not care less if I ever receive another trophy, certificate, or lucite paperweight again in my lifetime. However, many people thrive on this type of recognition. Studies show senior employees are more likely to be intrinsically motivated, while in contrast, those at the lower level of an organization tend to value extrinsic rewards more highly. Ultimately, don’t assume that your people will be motivated the same way you are.

Enlightened leaders understand and appreciate the difference between ‘lighting a fire within’ and ‘lighting a fire below.’ The later has the potential to demotivate, damage, and eventually destroy individuals, relationships and organizations. The former, ‘lighting a fire within,’ requires leaders to have a deeper knowledge of what truly inspires employees and will ultimately result in higher engagement, better performance, and a healthier workplace environment.