What Are Doing About Your “Workplace Prisoners”?

Recognize This! – Motivating employees requires more than compensation, which can create “prisoners.” Instead, companies need to emphasize a richer employee experience.

There is an interesting “iceberg” effect when it comes to employee motivation. Company leadership tends to focus on what is immediately visible, both for top talent and for severe underperformers for example. This focus can come at the expense of less visible, but no less impactful dynamics

What can get missed are the employees in the middle, an interesting proportion of whom show up and stay at their jobs despite being generally unmotivated, performing just enough to not bring attention to themselves. As I write on the Compensation Cafe, this group of employees was the subject of some recent research:

A report in The Wall Street Journal highlights a study (subscription required) by Aon Hewitt that looked at this group of employees. That study found 8% of employees fit into this profile of “prisoner” employee – defined as those “who stay at their jobs despite feeling unmotivated” – which was related to both longer tenure and salaries above market rates.

Workplace prisonerThe article goes on to suggest that compensation is generally an ineffective lever in increasing motivation, and in fact may only contribute to increased feelings of being “held prisoner.” The net impact is a reduction in functional voluntary turnover, negatively affecting colleagues and sapping the company’s potential.

The solution is probably two-fold. For employees who are either unwilling or unable to become more motivated and productive performers, the business and HR need to have processes in place to identify and move those employees out. For everyone else, there is much more hope.

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As I write in the full post, I argue that it may be helpful to leverage solutions that can create a more positive employee experience. Some of those solutions can include:

  • Developmental coaching and ongoing feedback can help to uncover barriers to that employee’s motivation and find solutions in the form of new roles or responsibilities.
  • Social recognition can also be a powerful motivator that builds on those conversations, amplifying examples of good performance and engaging a positive cycle of behaviors that align with the company’s core values.
  • Finally, a greater proportion of the overall compensation portfolio can be aligned towards real-time performance, creating more opportunity for motivation creation.

What are your thoughts on the best ways to transform “prisoner” employees into productive and energized contributors?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on Recognize This!

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at irvine@globoforce.com.

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