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Attitude is a choice: getting under the skin of employee motivation

Posted on 12 Jun 2023 by Jason

For most of the working week, people tend to focus purely on the job they’re doing. But every now and again, thoughts turn to some fundamental questions. Where do we want to go in our careers? What would success look like in the period ahead? And going deeper still, what motivates us to keep doing what we’re doing?

Motivation matters because when an employee feels inspired and stimulated, they perform better, and are less likely to leave. As Gallup has repeatedly found, staff absenteeism and turnover are higher in organisations where people don’t feel motivated. It’s been tracking employee engagement for over 50 years and it found that managers determine team engagement levels in 70 per cent of cases.

Motivation matters because we’re seeing high amounts of attrition across a lot of sectors. Almost two-thirds of Irish workers are planning to change jobs in 2022, LinkedIn’s survey of 1,001 professionals tells us. And many companies aim to take advantage: vacancies in talent acquisition and HR roles jumped by 420 per cent year on year, according to

If you don’t want your business to deal with a mass exodus this year, read on.

The matter of motivation is interesting because, in the world of work, there are two perspectives: the individual and their manager. In our most recent blog, we looked at authentic leadership based on empathy and understanding, and how this approach changes the way managers engage with their people.

The biggest mistake many of us make is the flawed assumption that the other person is motivated by the same things we are. One person might feel motivated by the purpose of their work, and they give a lot of meaning to the tasks they carry out in their jobs. For someone else, that work may just be a means to an end: funding their lifestyle or putting food on the family table. Some people are intrinsically motivated: internal factors drive their performance, whether that’s gaining knowledge or overcoming challenges. Others need external factors like pay, bonuses, or praise in order to feel motivated.

But happens in situations where two different dynamics exist between a manager and one of their team? Leader-member exchange (LMX) theory relates to workplace influence and says that leaders form strong trust, emotional, and respect-based relationships with some members of a team, but not with others.

LMX theory holds that leaders don’t treat all subordinates the same. Consequently, the work-related attitudes and behaviours of those subordinates depend on how the leader treats them. The in-group are those who the leader trusts, likes and respects. The leader perceives them as being good at their jobs, so they’re friendly with those people and more likely to be promoted. Anyone in the in-group would probably describe the relationship with their manager as friendly, supportive and one of mutual respect.

The out-group are those who the manager doesn’t gel with; maybe their values are different. The relationship between them tends to be formal rather than familiar. Over time, the dealings become transactional and reciprocal: you do this for me and I’ll do this for you. Those in the out group stick to the letter of the job description and have little interest in change or growth. Followers in this group become demotivated, and we know what can happen after that.

Does this sound familiar? Does this describe the dynamics at play in your workplace?

It’s a natural instinct to spend more time trying to engage with the people who are most like us. Who doesn’t love hearing answers that are more likely to satisfy us, and review performance that reflects well on us? But the challenge for a manager is to connect with the person who is most unlike them. Some organisations actually turn this into a KPI. In order to move managers away from focusing only on top-performing team members (who are very likely to be part of the in group), they measure time spent with staffers who may not be performing as well.

Hiring people is an expensive business, and it becomes even costlier when it involves replacing people who have built up a level of experience in their roles but who have reached the point of walking away. One of the smartest investments a manager can make is the time to get to know the team as individuals.

There’s no shortcut to developing one-to-one relationships; it takes time. As we covered in the last blog, engaging with everyone on the same level needs empathy, active listening and engagement. Asking investigative questions can uncover why someone feels demotivated, which can drive a conversation about how to understand what would drive them to overcome the obstacles they face.

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