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How to Motivate Knowledge Workers and Retain Top Talent

26 February 2014

Robert Weidner
UnitedHealth Group

Do you believe financial rewards are key when it comes to incentives in the workplace? While monetary reward may tell part of the tale, it isn't the whole story. Money is but one part of the psychological contract that is created between employee and employer (Griffin and Moorhead, 2008). To see the complete relationship, we must take a slightly broader view.

According to Vernon Zunker (2006), salary is often the greatest determinant when selecting where to work, but autonomy is the biggest factor when people decide to leave their current place of employment. Often, employees will stay in a position even if the salary is low, so long as they maintain some level of control over how they perform their work. It is only when this level of control is diminished that they begin seeking new career opportunities.

Autonomy provides employees with a sense of collective ownership. They are part of a greater whole, active (rather than passive) members of the team, "making a positive overall contribution to the organization" (Griffin and Moorhead, 2008). They have organizational citizenship and, thus, a sense of belonging. The need to belong, for affiliation, are powerful components that have significant influence on psychological congruence in the workplace. Autonomy should not be confused with the need for power, which is a different matter entirely, and one that some employees will avoid at all costs. The difference between power and autonomy can be summed up as follows: Power is the desire to control not just one's own actions but the actions of others, while autonomy is concerned with the ability to operate independently.

In traditional management approaches there is a clear delineation between supervisors and subordinates. Supervisors bark orders using a command-and-control style of leadership, demanding that subordinates jump into action. Many supervisors have a tendency to micromanage their direct reports. The functional manager role is intended to provide career guidance, ensuring that subordinates receive the training and tools they need to efficiently and effectively perform their job responsibilities and grow in positive directions that align with career aspirations. Instead, many functional managers expect subordinates to carry out duties exactly as they would have done when serving in that role, preferring to maintain keen oversight over every minute decision and work item that is performed. Rather than provide autonomy and help subordinates grow in a positive direction, these managers instead restrict their direct reports and limit low-level decision-making abilities. Such managers effectively tie the subordinate's hands behind their backs, ensuring that all decisions continue to bubble up through them. As a result, the subordinates are likely to become disgruntled and begin searching for new employment opportunities.

Studies have shown that the number-one indicator of job satisfaction is not salary but autonomy (Zunker, 2006). Generally, subordinates do not seek alternative employment merely because they feel their compensation is too low, but rather because they feel as though they have no say or control over how their job duties are performed. An employee will often stay in a low-salary position if they have autonomy, preferring the job security and sense of freedom over the unknown. If autonomy is low, or begins to decrease, that same employee will begin looking for new opportunities, choosing to venture into the unknown rather than suffer the dual indignity of having a low salary combined with loss of control.

Claus Langfred noted in his research article "To Be or Not to Be Autonomous: Exploring Why Employees Want More Autonomy" that "individual autonomy in the workplace has become increasingly important" and is considered "a crucial part of job design." The increasing importance of autonomy in the workplace parallels the shift that has been occurring in the workforce, from a predominant orientation toward labor and manufacturing positions to one centered on knowledge work. This has resulted in a significant impact on organizational behavior, as American society (among others) continues to transition from industrialization to information (Friedman, 2005).

In an effort to attract and retain top talent, organizations -- particularly those focused on information technology -- are now employing management principles based on servant leadership, rather than command-and-control practices. The emphasis within the industry has been placed on the ideals of collective ownership and self-organizing behavior. It is a democratic form of team governance -- from the bottom up rather than the top down -- that brings to mind Abraham Lincoln's oft-quoted Gettysburg address: "governance of the people, by the people, for the people."

The fastest-growing method in project management is Agile (Stenbeck, 2013), along with the subsequent software development frameworks that abide by its core principles, including Scrum, XP, and Lean practices. Agile frameworks use a servant-leader approach to software development teams. This means that those in leadership positions subscribe to the Theory Y model of behavior. Unlike Theory X advocates, who believe subordinates are inherently lazy and require micromanagement to complete their tasks, Theory Y assumes that employees are self-motivated and believe their talents are underused in most organizations (McGregor, 1960). Agile and its corresponding subset of frameworks lean toward paternalistic and democratic methods of leadership, which, unlike autocratic styles, tend to welcome input from subordinates and base decisions on what is best for both the business and its employees. A common practice in these organizations is the use of the Hewlett-Packard-pioneered technique of "management by wandering around" (MBWA) in order to stay in touch with project efforts and employee concerns. The ideal of transparency is strongly promoted -- after all, knowledge workers almost always want to know the why behind a decision. These organizations believe in autonomy and accountability in equal measure. An employee can only be responsible over that which they have control.

The control the employees have over the work they perform will, most likely, determine whether or not they seek alternative employment. Not salary, but autonomy. When I attended leadership training while in the United States Navy, the key principle the instructor ingrained in the students was this: "Tell subordinates what to do, not how to do it." When dealing with knowledge workers, this is the key to a productive working relationship. One based on mutual respect.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4.9 (7 ratings)


David Lowe, CSP,CSM, 3/1/2014 8:33:22 AM
Good post, Robert. Have you read Dan Pink's "Drive"? You'd love it.
Robert Weidner, CEC,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 3/5/2014 10:42:23 AM
Thanks, David. I had not heard of "Drive", but I will make sure to check it out.
David Lowe, CSP,CSM, 3/6/2014 3:36:52 AM
It's a fantastic book.
Robert Weidner, CEC,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 3/6/2014 12:45:14 PM
I ordered it yesterday... should arrive tomorrow! Thanks again.

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