Author Heidi Grant Halvorson on Motivating Your Employees

Heidi Grant Halvorson is associate director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School and a popular blogger on motivational science. She co-authored “The Psychology of Goals” and is author of  “9 Things Successful People Do Differently” and “Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals.” Anita Bruzzese recently interviewed her on how motivation plays a role in the workplace.

AB: What do you think is the biggest mistake mangers make when trying to engage their workers and motivate them?

HGH: Many managers have a hard time giving motivating feedback.  When things go wrong, we need to be willing to give honest criticism – because improvement is impossible without it — while fighting employee self-doubt.  She needs to believe that success is within her reach, regardless of the mistakes she has made in the past.  To do this, you need to be specific.  What needs improvement, and what exactly can be done to improve? When you are a manager, helping your employee figure out how to do it right is just as important as letting them know what they are doing wrong.

You also need to emphasize actions that she has the power to change.  Talk about aspects of her performance that are under her control, like the time and effort she put into a project, or the strategic approach she used.

AB: Do you think that motivation for workers has changed since the economic downturn? Why or why not?

HGH: Americans have a well-earned reputation for risk-taking, but these days we are something of a timid lot.  When making decisions, lately many of us have been focused much more on what we have to lose than on what we might gain.  Whenever we see our goals – whether they are organizational or personal – in terms of what we have to lose, we have what’s called a prevention focus.  Prevention motivation is about obtaining security, avoiding mistakes, and fulfilling responsibilities.  It’s about trying to hang on to what you’ve already got and keep things running smoothly, and it isn’t at all conducive to taking chances.

AB: As the economy improves, do you think employees will want different motivators?  If so, what do you think will become more popular with workers?

HGH: As the economy improves, people will become more promotion-focused, and care more about advancement and achievement.  They will be more interested in self-development, more willing to accept risk, and more interested in creativity and innovation.

AB: It’s been predicted that there will be great turnover in the workplace as the job market picks up. What would be your advice to someone who believes the grass must be greener on the other side and they should leave their jobs?

JGH: You want to make informed decisions, rather than unrealistically optimistic ones.  That said, I am a big believer in moving on if your current job/career/goal isn’t working for you.  If what you are doing now isn’t a good fit, it’s generally worth the effort (and the risk) to find something that will be.


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