Cary Cooper: How to build sustainable staff motivation

We have heard so much from senior bankers over the years that the bonuses they receive are an essential part of their renumeration package, but does it really motivate them or is it merely an expected aspect of their job description?

I have real doubts that sustainable motivation comes from a bonus culture. As we have seen in the banking industry, it had the unintended consequence of encouraging risk-taking behaviour that ultimately created the financial crisis.

For me, sustainable motivation comes from some sense of ownership of success. This can come in the form of an enterprise management information (EMI) or share ownership scheme, or from sharing profits at the end of the year, but for all employees, not just senior executives.

The most important element of sustainable motivation among a workforce is that they perceive that the success of the business is their success, but how this is translated into employee benefits may differ greatly, given the sector or culture of the particular business.

Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “The reward of a thing well done, is to have done it.”

Missing the point

The government is currently consulting on the idea of giving employees share ownership in their businesses if they give up certain employment rights, which is missing the point.

We know from various success stories and management research that when employees have share ownership, they will deliver to the bottom line, and it will be sustainable, so there is no need to tie it to giving up any rights.

Short of share ownership, it is also about asking staff what the organisation can do that would enhance their loyalty, and what benefits would be motivating for them.

Senior management in many businesses just do not engage with their employees from shop floor or even to top floor about these issues. If they did, we might find an answer to sustainable motivation from within the organisation.

Cary Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School