You’re a business manager or owner, sitting in a room with 10 employees. Have a good look at them. What do you see? Do they all look like people who are happy and keen to show their talents and make a difference to your bottom line?

Chances are that this is unlikely. Alarmingly, statistics show that six of those 10 aren’t engaged in the business at all and another one, maybe two, are “actively disengaged”. If you’re lucky, two or three of them will understand what you and your business are really trying to achieve.


The most recent “State of the Global Workplace” report by US-based company Gallup surveyed workplaces in 140 countries. It found that companies with a high proportion of engaged employees are more productive, profitable and serve their customers better. Staff at these businesses stay longer and take fewer “sickies”.

The good news is the relatively high ratio of engaged to disengaged employees in Australia and New Zealand – 1.5:1 – which is actually one of the highest in the world and similar to the US and Canada. (The report found the average worldwide “engaged employee” percentage is just 13 per cent, compared with 24 per cent in Australia and New Zealand.) The highest percentages of engaged employees work in farming, fishing and forestry (40 per cent) and installation and repair workers (30 per cent). The lowest engagement percentages are for transportation (9 per cent) and manufacturing/production workers (11 per cent).

So what can managers and owners do to keep employees motivated and productive? Just as importantly, how do they keep their best staff from walking out the door, never to return?

Business adviser Gavin Freeman says the most valuable assets for managers are sitting on the side of their heads. “Individuals want their voices to be heard, and that their opinions are actually acted on,” Freeman says. “People disengage when they say what they want and then the company just ignores them.

“A lot of organisations and managers out there don’t do two things. Either they don’t have the time to recognise an individual’s requirements or they don’t care. They just go, ‘This is what it is’. That sweet spot is really about the connection between what you as an individual needs, and what me as a manager or as a company is able to provide. The end product is that you, as the worker, feels like you want to give discretionary effort.”

Freeman, who wrote The Business Olympian in 2008 and was team psychologist for a number of successful sporting teams, says managers who want to get the best out of their people need to have a mind shift. He says businesses grow when individual workers feel valued and are happy to do more than they’re expected to do.

“The answer is actually in the title of my next book – “just stop motivating me”, Freeman says. “Managers have to stop thinking in a motivational mindset and start thinking around the inspirational mindset. The challenge behind that is that each individual is going to be inspired by something different.

“Real success doesn’t come when individuals give you effort as per their job description. It only happens when individuals give you the effort over and above what’s expected. The fine balance is about understanding the individuals you have working for you and what drives them.”

Anne Goodear has a unique perspective on keeping staff motivated, happy and productive. She is the chief executive of theAustralian Human Resources Institute, which has 20,000 members, as well as the leader of a small business with 50 staff.

“People are made up of lots of different bits and pieces, and it includes their competence, their contribution, the job you’ve given them to do, as well as their commitment and their attitude,” Goodear says. “In fact, when you look at individuals when they come to work every day, they’re a combination of three elements – competence, contribution and commitment. But it’s a multiplier. What that means is that you can be highly competent, and you can actually come in and do your job every day, 9-5, put your head down and go about it, but if your attitude sucks and you’re not contributing to the culture, then you really aren’t a talent in the organisation.”

She says the line between our work and real lives is blurred, especially in a small business. “[Managers] have to recognise that some days [staff] might not be on their game, or some days there might be something going on in their lives. But at the end of the day, I have a responsibility as the leader of this business to help people build their competence, help them be in a role that’s productive and help them feel it’s worthwhile and making a difference. I also need to help create a culture that they want to be a part of.”

Goodear says that this goes both ways, with workers needing to be honest about what they’re bringing to work. “I expect them to look at their skills, and put their hand up if they don’t have the skills or they believe additional skills might make a difference. They should also put their hand up when the job has become so mundane and boring that the stretch is no longer there, which means the engagement is no longer there. That stretch is what makes you stand up really tall and go after it.”

Best-selling author and presenter Andrew Griffiths agrees the key to producing motivated staff is listening to what each individual wants. “Have that conversation,” Griffiths says. “Something like: ‘Hey, what floats your boat? What do you want to do more of, what do you want to do less of? How can we tailor your job so that you’re going to be doing more of the stuff that you want to do?’”

He says business owners need to be brave enough to be flexible and personalise the conversation, so that it doesn’t need to come down to offering more money. “What can you do to make the individuals work better?” he asks. “What’s going to change it for the better? Maybe it’s something like varied work practices. If you can, you don’t have to do 9-5 anymore. You work as it works. Maybe you want to work from home, if that can work in your environment. We know now that that stuff works really well.”