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If You Want to Motivate Employees, Stop Worrying About Culture

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

This article was originally published under Jeff Miller’s column "The Science of Workplace Motivation" on

One of my first employers in the corporate world knew how to build a fun culture. Whether it was free pastries in the morning, amazing product launches, team off-sites or happy hours in the evening, the company did a fantastic job at creating a workplace where people not only got along, but actually wanted to spend time with each other.

At the time, I was in awe of the talented people and fun perks around me--but I also knew from years of studying and practicing the psychology of motivation that company culturewasn't the only thing that drove employee satisfaction.

And it showed: On the flip side of our social ease at work, my coworkers and I were consistently stressed. We had to get clearance on even the most minute decisions. And the feedback we received was usually negative, while excellent work went unnoticed.

These were issues of "organizational climate," a concept based on research by late psychologist David McClelland to describe the recurring feelings and patterns of behavior that characterized the employee experience at work.

The Six Elements of Organizational Climate

Company culture tends to dominate the conversation when it comes to employee motivation, but "climate" arguably impacts engagement more directly--in part because it's easier to assess and change. While your culture is deep-rooted in the traditions, values, and language you share as an organization, the different elements of climate can easily shift from year to year (even day to day), and are different across teams.

Research based on McClelland's work over the past 60 years suggests that when leaders focus their attention on these six elements of organizational climate, motivation, morale and productivity increase:

  1. Conformity. This is your organization's "red tape," or the processes and policies that don't seem to have an understood purpose to employees. Think: The weekly summary you ask your middle-manager to send that never seems to go anywhere. In an ideal climate, conformity is low: Managers should be laser-focused on removing unnecessary obstacles to employee productivity, and if it is a necessary task, explaining why it needs to be done.
  2. Ownership. When a manager lowers conformity by taking away unnecessary tasks, employees will feel more empowered and ownership will increase--and you want ownership to be high. This can be accomplished with something as simple as explaining how certain tasks contribute to your team's overall strategic role: For example, the weekly reports need to be delivered to you by 3 p.m. on Fridays, because you need to review and add your section for the CFO by 5:30 p.m.
  3. Standards. Do your employees feel like they're working toward something, or are they ambling around? To set high standards, managers need to make sure that goals are not only communicated clearly, but also present a reasonable challenge for employees. You want to set objectives that are achievable with a stretch in order to embrace failure and growth.
  4. Recognition. When most people hear "rewards and recognition," they think raises and bonuses. And while that's certainly one way to recognize great work, money doesn't motivate people. (One study found that there's a less than two percent overlapbetween pay and job satisfaction.) Instead, this element refers to a healthy balance of positive and negative feedback. You should strive to regularly communicate when people are doing things well, and when they could do things better.
  5. Clarity. Do people on your team have clarity about their role and their career path options? Do they understand what they're supposed to be doing? As simple as it seems, high clarity is often the hardest element to achieve. If you're struggling with this element, talk to your HR and leadership teams about revisiting job descriptions, and using data to unlock more career mobility options for employees.
  6. Team Spirit. Last but not least, do the people on your team have each other's back? Team spirit is critical to overcoming adversity and surviving bumps in the road as a company. And it's relatively simple to establish: Just get to know your team members as people. My personal rule of thumb is to never ask "How are you?" in passing--I always stop to hear the answer, so that my team knows I care about their whole selves.

While redefining culture requires major reflections and upheaval, redefining and improving climate can be tackled by almost any organizational leader. It's made up of the small things, like explaining the purpose of a task or providing feedback such as, "Great job! Next time, you can improve even further by..."

It may not have achieved buzzword status (or landed on Merriam-Webster's "Word of the Year" list), but if you're an organizational leader who wants to improve employee motivation, it's time to claim climate as your new North Star.

Photo: Creative Commons

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