What is the true cost of unmotivated employees?

This author believes that companies overspend on inspiring and training their top talent, ignoring the tremendous incidental costs of the listless workers who collect paychecks.

Our brains don’t always do their best weighing the risks we face. One of my favorites is the concern some have about radiation from airport security scanners, despite that radiation being equal to the radiation we get from just 12 seconds of flying.

Often bigger risks are less visible than smaller risks, an “iceberg” effect. It can be the same way for organizations and the barriers they face to realizing the potential of their workers.

When we think of those barriers, first thoughts often go to voluntary turnover of top talent and development of these talented workers as a must-solve. Far less often do we consider the effect on the other end of the spectrum—uninterested, unmotivated employees who show up to work.

Compensation is sufficient to keep these employees coming through the door, but is otherwise ineffective. The effect of these direct costs and their effect on other employees’ performance and motivation could cost the organization more than not motivating its top people.

A recent report in The Wall Street Journal highlights a study by Aon Hewitt of this group of employees. That study found 8 percent of employees fit this profile of “prisoner” employees, who enjoyed longer tenure and earned salaries above market rates.

The phenomenon is related to presenteeism, where employees show up for work distracted by illness or other issues. Studies indicate that showing up for the sake of showing up accounts for a 75 percent loss of productivity, not to mention the spillover costs to co-workers and team productivity or culture.

What is the solution?

Some employees will be unable or unwilling to become motivated. In those cases, organizations must have processes to ensure turnover.

For many others there is hope. If compensation is ineffective, it may help to create a more positive employee experience. Several experiments might be helpful.

For example, developmental coaching and feedback can uncover barriers to an employee’s motivation and find answers in new roles or responsibilities. Social recognition can be a powerful motivator, building on those conversations, amplifying examples of good performance and engaging a positive behaviors that reinforce the company’s values.

Finally, a greater proportion of compensation can be directed to performance, creating more motivation.

How might you think about encouraging greater motivation from the bottom up?

Globoforce’s vice president of client strategy and consulting, Derek Irvine has, for more than 20 years, helped companies set higher goals by global strategic employee recognition. A version of this article first appeared on Compensation Café.


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