The Case for Motivation: What’s sapping it, what will bring it back

Tech disruptions and outdated corporate structures are sapping people’s drive to work at a distressing, if not record, level. Motivation, Innovation, Workplace stress, Leadership, Purpose, Performance, Organizational change

This is an exciting moment in human history. For the first time, people have turned the uncontrollable forces of nature—famine, sickness, and extreme poverty—into manageable challenges. This hasn’t come through any magic pill, of course. These once-insurmountable issues have been slowly brought down to size by motivated people, both individuals and groups, armed with the flexibility and desire to generate innovative ideas. Indeed, motivation is a seed that produces innovation.

But in recent times, motivation has become one of the greater concerns—and mysteries—of today’s business world. Even though these should be idyllic times for workers, with the economy and the labor market at such favorable levels, study after study suggests something has gone terribly wrong with workforce motivation. People still have the drive to work hard, but much of this drive has become sapped inside corporate hallways and factory walls. One of the most comprehensive surveys of the American workplace finds that 70% of workers say they are not highly engaged in their jobs—a disappointing figure given the funds companies dedicate to engagement.

The Korn Ferry Institute believes this mystery in motivation can be unlocked. According to our research, the heart of the problem centers on several very topical factors, from rapid tech disruptions to antiquated corporate structures to a disturbing rise in employee stress. Indeed, our analysis of a major global employee survey covering nearly 50 countries reveals that employee stress has risen nearly 20% in three decades. But we also believe that companies and employees together can turn the power of motivation to their favor, by creating a greater sense of purpose in the workplace, improving individual and corporate agility, and evolving leadership practices and operating structures.

This paper provides a roadmap to these steps, reaffirming the value of human capital in general and human motivation in particular. With the pace of change only increasing, stress is not likely to recede, so individuals must learn to cope, or better yet thrive, under a new management paradigm, while prevailing leadership and organizational practices must be reimagined to unleash the true adaptive potential of today’s workforce. Some measures can come with relative ease; others may require a more demanding process. But the stakes behind today’s battle for motivation could not be greater, with the very momentum for the pervasive innovations we enjoy today—and expect for tomorrow—now hanging in the balance.

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