By Burkhardt Prigge, Kepner-Tregoe

The nature of job roles has been evolving over the past few decades from repetitive production tasks to heuristic activities requiring knowledge and critical thinking skills.  That change is projected to continue as we enter the 4th industrial revolution.  In spite of this change, companies are failing to adequately adapt HR and management practices to effectively motivate employees in the roles that are needed the most.  Studies have shown that the “carrot and stick” motivational theories that form the foundation of “pay for performance” based management approaches not only don’t work for roles that require creativity and thinking but can be de-motivating and counter-productive to the goals the company is seeking to achieve. 

So what does this have to do with problem solving?  It turns out that for knowledge workers, providing meaningful and challenging problem solving opportunities along with the authority to solve them can be a key driver for fostering intrinsic motivation and job satisfaction.  Think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for a moment, most modern employees have most of the lower needs met and what they are really seeking is self-actualization through their careers.  Here are 4 tips on how to use problem solving and what we know about human behavior to increase both productivity and employee satisfaction:

  1. Treat problem solving as a motivator – The millennial generation in particular has grown up with an affinity towards activities where they feel challenged and they feel a sense of purpose.  As an employer, you can build upon this natural inclination by providing bigger and tougher problems for the employee to solve.  Rather than looking for an external ‘carrot’ to motivate with, consider using a new and challenging work assignment as a means of motivating employees to perform to their potential.
  2. Even repetitive tasks can be positioned in the context of continuous improvement – For manufacturing, operations and service roles that have a large repetitive component, consider changing the conversation from “how well are you executing the role?” to “how can we execute the role better?”  Employees are seeking a sense of purpose and a feeling that they are making a difference – so continuous improvement comes naturally to them as long as your company culture doesn’t discourage it.
  3. Frame the activity as an opportunity, not a chore – ‘work is something you are paid to do and fun is something you pay to be able to do’ – how you frame the activity makes a huge difference on whether or not employees will be motivated to do it.  Mark Twain made the point well in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” with the story about whitewashing the fence.  You can completely flip the perception of an activity by taking a novel approach to framing.
  4. Don’t compensate for solving problems – Leaders only call on people they trust and respect to solve the difficult problems.  You don’t need to offer an extrinsic reward for the activity – doing so will diminish the perceived intrinsic value of the activity and lead employees to be less motivated to participate.

The modern employee is smart and has a lot of potential – that’s why you hired them! Now it is time for you to showcase your management smarts and lead your employees to the next level of performance by leveraging business problems to give your people the challenge and purpose they need to be happy and motivated in their careers.

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