The Employee-Motivation Gap

A new Korn Ferry survey shows that individual contributors are far less engaged than senior-level bosses.

At the upper levels of organizations, motivation isn’t hard to find. Fully 81% percent of CEOs say they’re willing to do more than is required of them. 

But it’s a different world on the other levels of the org chart, according to the new Korn Ferry Motivation Meter, a quarterly measurement of workers’ motivation around the world. Just 65% of first-level managers or individual contributors agreed that they were motivated to do more, the lowest level since 2019 (when the figure was 60%). “Motivation is really fracturing at lowest professional levels,” says Mark Arian, chief executive officer of Korn Ferry Consulting.

Experts call the gap worrisome, because it may reflect a blind spot among top-ranking executives for the people they are trying to lead. Workers who are less engaged are more likely to quit, as well as less productive, in many cases, than their more motivated counterparts. “This should be a wake-up call,” Arian says.

Overall, 77% of managers agreed that they were motivated to do more (unchanged from last year), as did 82% of senior executives. Experts say professionals at these higher levels have had years to develop new skills and build productive, positive relationships with colleagues. They are often high achievers, with engagement levels surpassing their peers’ throughout their careers. They’re often incentivized to excel, Arian says, by compensation that’s tied to performance.

This spring, Korn Ferry surveyed 10,000 professionals across all levels in six key business regions. Globally, 71% agree that they are motivated to do more than is required of them at work, the same percentage as in 2023. Generally, motivation increased during the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020 and in the two years that followed. But it declined in 2023, and hasn’t rebounded this year. While many people willingly go into overdrive during a crisis, experts say, they’re reluctant to do so when the stakes are not existential. “There was a feeling of heroism and rising to the occasion, but that’s not sustainable,” says Maria Amato, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who leads the firm’s Employer Value Proposition and Total Rewards Optimization solution areas.

However, middle managers saw a decline in motivation over the past year, from 76% to 73%. Middle managers have been squeezed since the pandemic, often charged with enforcing changing return-to-office policies, reining in costs, and managing employees who may not be working at the same time or in the same place. Many of these managers also have been the target of recent restructurings, reassignments, or layoffs.

The biggest motivation gap, however, exists between senior leadership and individual contributors. Among professionals without management responsibilities, only 57% said they were motivated to do more than their job requires. They cited a number of contributing factors, including a scarcity of development opportunities, a lack of camaraderie, and anxiety about being replaced by AI. 

Younger employees are often told what to do but not why what they’re doing matters, says Tessa Misiaszek, head of research for the Korn Ferry Institute.  “The younger employees feel like they have more skills to apply but they are not being given a chance,” she says.

A modern corporation thrives when it employs motivated workers who are eager to make a significant impact for themselves and their organization. Experts say any lack of motivation among a company’s workers, particularly younger ones, can be a troubling sign. Leaders need to be able to mentor their lower-level workers and give them opportunities to broaden their skill sets. That’s harder to do in a hybrid environment, Arian says.     


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