This blog post is based on a talk about engagement and motivation that I gave at the Beyond HR Forum in Amsterdam last week – a must attend event for everyone with a passion for HR.

Work sucks. Or at least that’s what a vast majority of the global workforce seems to think. The latest study from Gallup shows that 87% of the global workforce is what they call “disengaged.” Engagement and disengagement center around “the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and put discretionary effort into their work.” Nearly 9 out of 10 of us don’t feel passionate about our jobs or committed to our employers, and it’s costing companies a HUGE amount of money. The United States alone lost about $500 billion to disengagement last year.

Disengagement isn’t just a problem for current employees, it’s a problem for potential employees as well. If we as employers are doing such a bad job of inspiring the people we already have how can we expect to convince anyone else to join us? In order to improve employee engagement as well as our employer brands we’re going to have to think differently about what drives people.

Since the industrial revolution the majority of employers have tried to foster employee engagement and the performance it produces using financial incentives. The idea has essentially been that human beings function as coin operated machines, where results are based directly on the amount of money you put in. However, research is showing how ineffective this can be. A behavioral economist named Dan Ariely conducted a study that looked at the impact of incentives on performance and found that paying disproportionately high bonuses not only failed to yield better results, it actually yielded WORSE results!

How Can a Company Improve Employee Engagement?

It turns out that its not money that’s fostering engagement – it’s meaning and purpose. On a company level one can lay the groundwork for meaning and purpose by having clear company goals and a general statement of why the company does what it does. (These things don’t always create meaning in and of themselves, but they can lay the groundwork.) After a goal and a why statement, there are two key things that create meaning in work:

1) Addressing how it can help someone better themselves

2) Addressing how it can benefit others.

These two points are, I believe, two of the strongest forms of motivation out there. When people embrace them they are engaging in what I call “The Never-Ending Pursuit of Awesome” (NEPA). Why? Because they are engaging in a constant push to make things awesome!

The notion that bettering oneself and the lives of others can create meaning for employees and generate improvements in their performance isn’t just some abstract concept – it is something that is becoming increasingly validated by the scientific community. In terms of bettering oneself, research has shown that when work includes a personal development plan (PDP) employee performance can improve by 35%. In terms of bettering the lives of others it’s been found that emphasizing “task significance” – or how the work can effect other people, can lead to a 69% increase in performance.  As we can see, NEPA seems to be much more effective than money at fostering engagement.

To improve engagement and employer branding at your company there are two easy things you can do:

1) NEPA Propaganda

– Partner with marketing to find simple, easily digestible ways to talk about how the company wants to help employees better themselves and the lives of others
– Include this NEPA messaging on the company career page, recruitment marketing, job descriptions, internal communications, etc.

NEPA propaganda has two effects – First, it gets internal employees talking about and eventually embracing the idea of bettering themselves and the lives of others. Second, it encourages potential candidates to look at your company and apply with the NEPA mindset, meaning that the moment they start with your company they’re going to be thinking about how they can better themselves and the lives of coworkers, customers, and other stakeholders. This will raise engagement, which will in turn improve company performance.

2) Adjust Performance Reviews

– Change performance reviews to focus more on helping employees consider and incorporate NEPA into their work
– Have formalized feedback (that incorporates NEPA) come more frequently (at least every 8 weeks) rather than once a year right before raises/bonuses are given

Feedback works best when it comes frequently and is used to develop people.  Not only will NEPA based feedback help drive engagement in your employees, it will help them to feel inspired enough to tell other people about their jobs. In turn this will help your recruiting efforts with more employee referrals, more applicants, and a generally better employer brand.

In the end it’s not money that’s driving most people, but the desire to better oneself and the lives of others. We are, after all, more than just coin operated machines. When we feel like NEPA is happening in our work we feel more engaged and end up doing as much as possible to ensure we achieve the best outcomes, more so than when we are just offered financial bonuses. Money is nice, but personal growth and making a difference is nicer. Fortunately, some companies are starting to realize that, and with a little bit of effort, your company can too.