How Do You Drive Engagement and Motivation in Times of Extreme Uncertainty?

Train your leaders to anticipate needs.

When you study the science behind employee motivation and engagement (two related but importantly different constructs), there’s something you learn on day one about both: Leaders are the key. It’s oft-cited that leaders are a significant driver of employee engagement. Knowing such, it stands to reason that if we help our leaders to become better, our employees will become more motivated and engaged, and our organization will thrive. What could be better than a simple plan?

Of course, how we help our leaders become better is possibly a more complex issue than we may have thought. Forget about the already heavy lift of how to make the training stick; to start, we need to figure out what we want to teach our leaders in the first place.

In this case, a singular concept to emerge from the science of motivation and engagement proves far more elusive than something as simple as “leaders are key.” In fact, many widely accepted theories seemingly contradict each other. For example, situational leadership theories stress the importance of treating employees differently based on their skill and experience levels, whereas procedural justice theories talk about the importance of treating everyone the same, regardless of skill and experience levels.

When you dig a little deeper, you begin to see that in most cases, these theories are applicable to certain aspects of leadership, but usually not applicable across all aspects of leadership. So while situational leadership theories are more about levels of coaching and autonomy, procedural justice theories are more about evaluative and consequential decision-making. In other words, context is everything, which means that identifying a single set of behaviors to apply in every situation is practically impossible. And that statement is true in a stable environment.

When we enter periods of extreme change and uncertainty, helping leaders help their teams becomes even more difficult at exactly the same time it becomes more important. People are usually already feeling intense anxiety, whether the extreme uncertainty is caused by a financial crash or something even more disruptive, such as natural disasters or a global health event, so the stakes couldn’t be higher. But the question remains: How can we train our leaders to be as effective as possible at driving motivation and engagement during periods of great uncertainty?

The answer is to help our leaders understand the underlying principles of motivation and engagement on which they can create context-specific actions to nurture the outcomes that benefit all.

Intrinsic Motivation

Just as there are many effective approaches to improve our health (exercise, nutrition, wellness), there are many effective approaches leaders can take to improve motivation and engagement. In the tangible realm, the effective use of goals and incentives can do wonders for boosting motivation and engagement. The same is true in the intangible realm, through concepts such as organizational culture and social identity.

But my personal favorites—and the ones I think are most flexible to accommodate the widest range of contexts—are the “needs” theories, based on the premise that by fulfilling fundamental human needs through their work, we can sustainably support the motivation and engagement of our employees. In particular, I am a fan of Self-Determination Theory (“SDT”) by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. Before we go into the theory, it’s important to point out that there are two types of motivation: extrinsic (because I have to) and intrinsic (because I want to). Not surprisingly, intrinsic is a lot more powerful. Deci and Ryan’s work seeks to understand the fulfillment of which needs would tap into intrinsic motivation. In other words, what could we provide to our people that would be so rewarding for them that they’d show up to work because they want to, not because they have to?

What they found was that people needed three things in order to become intrinsically motivated:

1. Autonomy: The freedom to determine how to achieve one’s goals

2. Mastery: The opportunity to demonstrate mastery through, and receive recognition for contributions to the team

3. Relatedness: The ability to connect with other people, from colleagues to clients to community

When people had these needs fulfilled at work, they started showing up because they wanted to, leading to better outcomes across the board.

Now, autonomy, mastery, and relatedness look very different in a science lab than in an advertising agency, a manufacturing plant, or a hospital. But in each of those environments, leaders can ensure their employees get what they need in the appropriate context of their work.

This adaptability does not only apply to different industries. It also applies to different circumstances. Whether employees are forced to work from home or forced to adopt a new set of behaviors in a new normal of work, managers can always be looking for ways to provide employees with the autonomy, mastery, and relatedness they need. For example, in the case of the suddenly remote worker, managers should demonstrate trust that people will get their work done without keeping close tabs on how they are spending their time (autonomy), enable people regularly to demo their work to the rest of the team and receive the requisite recognition (mastery), and nurture personal connectivity among the team during remote meetings (relatedness).

If our leaders can identify the underlying principles of what people most need to deliver their best work, they can creatively adapt to every context that may arise, regardless of the uncertainty. They just need to think about need.

For additional insight on anticipating needs and driving motivation during times of uncertainty, visit to access a complete recording of the Webcast, “No Handshakes Please: Managing and Activating Talent in the New World of Work.”

Jordan Birnbaum is Chief Behavioral Economist at ADP.

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