Employee engagement can be improved by goal-setting

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Cognitive Neuroscientist Dr Lynda Shaw says employees in the UK are often unmotivated because businesses don’t truly understand the importance of an effective review and rewards system being put in place.

Dr Shaw argues that the motivation and reward systems in the brain can help us understand what drives people to go from bad to good, from good to better and from better to brilliant in business. Dopamine is one of the brain’s pleasure chemicals. When behavioural neuroscientist John Salamone offered rats the choice of one pile of food or another pile of food twice the size but behind a small fence. Rats with lowered levels of dopamine almost always took the easy way out, choosing the small pile instead of jumping the fence for greater reward.

So what does this mean for business? If you create a happy dopamine environment full of rewarding experiences, then the brain can feed off this and we become more motivated. Shaw argues by setting goals and then experiencing frequent positive feedback during the achievement of these goals then dopamine will flow. “Whether you are a child or a top CEO the bottom line is we all want to feel good about ourselves, we like to succeed at a task and we need to be rewarded to work at our very best. It is true to say though that we do also need to have the personality to be able to persevere and finish the job even when it’s boring, hard or not what we want to do”.

“Goal setting is very important. By taking the time to find out an employee’s personal goals, and then relating them to your organisation, you will be motivating your employee to strive to achieve. Ensure your employee is directly involved in their own goal setting, as that will increase ‘buy in’ from them.”

In addition Dr Shaw argues that monitoring and maximising behaviour and results at every level in an organisation involves planning, reviewing, evaluating and planning again. “In your business, do all your employees have a clear understanding of what is expected of them? Do managers regularly discuss the individual’s needs as well as the needs of the organisation?  Excellent management is an ongoing process and when we get it right performance improves. It should not be a once a year review process.”

Theo Mason, CEO of online work management system company Simitive, agrees: “The key challenges of goal setting, performance management, learning and appraisal needs to link into the success of individuals in achieving everyday objectives and the delivery of top level organisational goals.” Simitive works closely with corporates as well as universities, the police, schools and colleges to help teams and managers set and clearly communicate strategy and to empower individuals to better understand their role and their contribution.

Shaw believes businesses are expecting more from their employees in terms of hours, loyalty and turnover but need to give more time to their employees to explain what is expected of them in order that they have a higher rate of success, as well as better feedback generally. “This is particularly key when an employee is new to the organisation. Time needs to spent with the employee to get them up to speed quickly so they feel rewarded by the new role.”

Being creative regarding your rewards systems will also achieve results according to Shaw. “Many employers assume financial rewards are highly effective in motivating staff. However money is both a motivator and a stressor. Social based rewards such as praise and positive feedback creates a pleasure response in the brain, and when an employee’s wellbeing improves, so will their performance.”

Conversely it can be dangerous to just introduce a series of measures and attach rewards to specific targets in order to incentivize employees without linking them to the overall business strategy. Dr Shaw argues that this can lead to people getting ‘measure fixated’.  “It is of utmost importance to keep your employees reminded of the ultimate goals of the organisation. By involving them and keeping them aware of the bigger picture, they will understand the importance of their role and that their success has a direct impact on the success of the business.”

Three Tips for effective performance management:

  1. Good business needs a healthy workforce and this starts with performance management that is consistent and transparent to avoid stress in the workplace.  When the stress hormone ‘cortisol’ is over stimulated for an extended period, we experience memory loss, high blood pressure and possible depression, which are costly to the individual and the organisation.
  2. Psychologically, an agreed plan that has considered everyone’s input will promote responsibility and accountability; both of which are highly necessary for efficiency and well-being.
  3. Our motivation and reward systems in the brain galvanise into action with energy and enthusiasm.  It is not always about money.  By taking a little bit of time to find out what motivates people, you can grow your business.

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  1. · Edit

    Reward schemes are crucial for boosting employee engagement.
    When implementing such a scheme, businesses need to look closely at the type of reward they offer, be it monetary or otherwise.
    The incentive chosen will vary for each employee. After all, a ‘one size fits all’ approach to rewarding people as part of a motivation scheme does not achieve the full potential of the programme. A gift that will be attractive to a single graduate worker may not appeal to a working parent and if the gift is inappropriate, the impact will be lost and resources wasted. When planning a motivation scheme, businesses must take into account the different requirements of employees, considering lifestyle, status and family situation.

  2. Some interesting links here to Relationship Awareness Theory (what the Strength Deployment Inventory is based on). The dopamine rush could well relate to feedback (in the very broad sense – so people seeing what’s happening as a result of their behaviours) that what’s being achieved is what does indeed excite and enthuse people. Issue being of course, that we’re all enthused by the achievement of different things. Ensuring the indivdidual understands the link (via verbal feedback from the line manager) between their personal motivations and what the role is about is indeed a key motivator.

    And as far as the comments re ‘measure fixation’ – one only has to look at the current press re what (sadly) all too much of the UK police force has been up to…

  3. If you’re looking at goal setting as a motivational / engagement tool then it may pay to go back to the seminal, academically robust work of Latham and Locke (the founding fathers of Goal Setting Theory).
    Here you’ll find, among other things, that:
    a) individuals do not NEED to be included / involved in their goal setting for goals to have a motivational effect;
    b) more challenging goals generate greater motivation than easy goals EVEN when they are not achieved.
    These somewhat counter-intuitive findings are a good demonstration of why it pays to have academic rigour in research and to base practice guidance on proven data, rather than a more journalistic ‘ireckon.com’ approach to understanding people’s behaviour.

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