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Volunteering and motivation

Imagine, if your employees went to work with the same attitude to their tasks as people who do voluntary work. When you do voluntary work, money isn't the motivation, but something different, to do with identity and self-realization. The volunteers want to make a difference and be part of developing and changing the cause they believe in. They are motivated from something other than salary and this is what needs to be recreated in corporate life in order to achieve the same level of motivation.

These are the words of consultant Lars Petersen from Danish company Ankerhus, House of Nordic Leadership. His main point is that the premise for working with motivation must be based on voluntariness in order to succeed one hundred percent. This article, gives one perspective on how an organization or a company can work with voluntariness as a motivational factor in a profitable way.

Things are going pretty well, why change anything?

In recent years, within development and management theory, there's been a massive focus on employee satisfaction. The mantra has been that the more responsibility employees have, the better the organization’s results will be. Employee satisfaction is traditionally understood on account of fulfilment of our basic need – to be recognized for what we do.

According to Lars Petersen, it is true that employee satisfaction in many ways leads to better results in the organization and is crucial for a good work environment. Happy employees with a say in their own work assignments feel that they are seen and heard, and this recognition gives the feeling that one's work is meaningful. Satisfied employees are, of course, an asset to the organization, and a good thing. But a high level of employee satisfaction does not necessarily lead to development and renewal, which is also important to a company's competitiveness.

In Petersen’s opinion satisfaction might as well generate a type of organizational state, where daily and recognizable work routines can totally prevent you from paying attention to necessary development and renewal. As such, a high level of employee satisfaction can both be a good foundation for thinking and development in an organization, but it can also be limiting, because you'll just do as usual.

Volunteering is key

For things to not stand still, motivation must to a larger degree be understood as a circular continuing movement that must be kept in motion, according to Lars Petersen. As the leader you can ignite such a constructive motion, but it cannot be dictated. And, it must arrive when its frames are like the ones found in voluntary work. And this is where Lars Petersen’s main point comes into play. That voluntariness is the key to motivation.

When management theorists want to understand how the relationship is between needs and motivation, and how to best motivate your employee to be more productive, it's traditionally been done based on psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The idea is that every human have a range of fundamental needs that must be fulfilled in order to function satisfyingly.

  • In the bottom of the hierarchy we find physical needs such as sleep, food, drink etc.

  • Then comes the needs that relates to safety and emotional necessities; stability, order, moral and other things, which guarantees a continuing absence of discomfort, fear or anxiety.

  • The next layer is social needs that relates to community, love, family and friendship. Here, it's crucial that we're able to commit to intimate and tight relationships in order to cover the need for being loved, seen and heard.

  • Then comes the needs for reputation and respect, which relates to self-esteem, self-confidence, acknowledgement and status.

  • At the top, and most interesting in our context, we find the needs that have to do with self-realization and self-actualization. This is where we can express our creative potential and through elevated experiences see issues and other possible change processes from entirely new perspectives.

If you want continued development, it's not enough to satisfy the needs on the three lower levels, because the productive processes will stop as soon as the specific needs are fulfilled. It would perhaps provide satisfied employees with the lower levels covered, but it won't necessarily provide employees who use their full potential in favor of the company.

When you want to create lasting development, you must focus on the two highest levels; the needs for reputation and self-realization that are motivated and covered by thinking, creativity, reflection, problem solving and realization of natural and acquired skills and capabilities. Since they cannot be saturated the same way, they can be a constant source of productivity and idea development. This, of course, implies that the needs from the three lowest levels are completely or partly covered, for instance in the form of job safety, economic safety, good relations etc.

No needs are inherent or fully defined. Though the most fundamental, hunger, thirst etc., are perhaps. Needs are also expressed differently depending on the time and culture they emerge in. When we do voluntary work, we get our need of reputation and self-actualization covered, because it's a cause we  are invested in and have chosen ourselves based on our own interests. So when you are able to create space for your employees to fulfill the needs from the two highest levels of the hierarchy, you are well on your way towards top-motivated employees.

Voluntariness, or the same frame of mind, can according to Lars Petersen also be achieved by implementing some structures in the organization, that are based on development and change processes. You could , for instance, try to create and use different working methods and tools than normally, in order to challenge the employee’s flexibility for finishing tasks and work in a way that they aren't used to. Here Scrum is a good tool, according to Lars Petersen, because you work on extracting the best results from the given situation, and the method gives the employee some tools to face change.

Scrum is a development process that doesn't have a linear structure and is usually built upon the four following activities: Analysis, design, implementation and testing. Scrum does not determine the order of the implementation of the activities.

A project can start with any activity and shift to another activity at any time. This increases the flexibility and productivity of the project. Other points that characterizes Scrum are: Flexible time schedules, flexible deadlines, small development teams, frequent walkthrough and follow-up, collaboration between development teams.

When implementing a new structure such as Scrum, constant change is in focus, and with employees that are collaborating across the company, doors open to new ways of sharing knowledge in the company. When we are good at sharing knowledge, there is a better flow through the company and the employees will experience a greater motivation.

You can get your employees to involve themselves in their work as if it was a voluntary effort, if you make sure that you create a space for them to get their needs of reputation and self-actualization covered. This is done by introducing new  ways to work that are process oriented and which continuingly ensure that development and productivity keep moving.