Welcome to the new normal, where workers struggle to care about their jobs. What are the costs, causes and solutions to what may be the defining corporate crisis of today?

It’s Sunday night and Dina Vaccari’s fridge is stocked with colourful Mason jar salads, lined up and ready for a week of battle. Stacked up beside her bed are inspirational books by Buddhist monks on finding your most productive self. Her clothes dryer is humming, fluffing the towels for her morning swim workout. You’d have a hard time calling Vaccari unmotivated.

The 34-year-old MBA grad lives and breathes motivation, journaling about career goals and attending lectures on fine-tuning business skills. And yet, when it came to her professional life, Vaccari sometimes had trouble finding motivation. “I felt like I was working at a breakneck pace.” Worse, she says that since her effort was already maxed out, she couldn’t imagine how she could possibly move up within the company without completely exhausting herself. “It left me feeling apathetic,” she says.

That wasn’t how she pictured things going. Raised the child of a hardworking Italian father in Pittsburgh, Vaccari always envisioned that her MBA would lead to a secure future, one featuring a rising paycheck, a reliable health plan and a fat superannuation fund waiting at the end of the line, made all the larger by both a strong stock market and years of corporate matches.

But instead of building the steady career of her parents’ generation and feeling loyalty to one company, she spent her years after grad school job-hopping, leaving one position because of that breakneck pace, another because of the lack of any work-life balance and another because she felt as if she was simply “attending meetings about making presentations” without making a difference for the company’s bottom line. She decided to take a break; she got married, she travelled and she started to wonder if she would ever encounter a work atmosphere where she brought unique value to a team and was strongly backed by an enthused manager.

More than the paycheck: employees want to work in a thriving environment. Click To Tweet

In short, this overachieving MBA grad was stressed that she would have to settle for simply bringing home a paycheck, instead of thriving in an environment where she was “moving the needle for business.”

It may sound like a gimmick to ask: “What’s my motivation?” But this curious search for motivation has become a very real problem for some of today’s top workers, and in turn, for today’s top companies, producing a mind-blowing cost to the bottom line.

Corporations pour enormous resources into fostering superior performances from their staffs, a goal that has become important in today’s ruthless global economy. By one estimate, actively disengaged employees are costing firms in the US alone, $450 billion to $550 billion in lost productivity per year. Taking the issue from the opposite angle, Korn Ferry found that firms that engage and enable their employees post up to 4.5 times more revenue growth than companies that don’t. The importance of all this just can’t be understated. It’s what’s going to separate the good companies from the truly great ones.

So what can companies do to keep their employees motivated? Keeping up with changing demands of the new work order might require that companies adapt their engagement approaches, their reward strategies or even their organisational design. But more than anything, the solution might lie in creating a change in the work climate itself.

The new work order requires that companies adapt their engagement approaches and reward strategies. Click To Tweet


This may include creating a sense of purpose to help drive employee motivation as well.

Today, more and more companies are using social responsibility programs to help foster a sense of meaning, and thereby motivation, in their employees. Much of this is driving what’s known as the work-for-purpose movement. According to the social responsibility movement, companies need not make the zero-sum decision of whether to turn a profit or increase the welfare of society; increasingly, companies are trying to do both. And it turns out that this commitment to social responsibility is turning into a new driver of employee motivation. Certainly, consumers agree: Studies repeatedly show a rising public desire for companies to make money and support good causes at the same time. But the trick to getting the most out of the work-for-purpose movement, and in turn, out of employees’ motivation, might be in getting management involved. According to a study by the marketing firm Edelman, 55 percent of global consumers believe that CEOs themselves should be the ones publicly making a long-term commitment to addressing societal issues. Allowing their employees to get invested in that vision might in turn be the key to restoring employee motivation.

Today companies are using social responsibility programs to help foster a sense of meaning. Click To Tweet

Dina Vaccari agrees. Vaccari, the highly motivated yet untapped MBA, says she was looking for a job where what she did would “improve people’s lives in some small way.” She eventually landed what she feels is a very promising gig as a product manager at a major corporation.

“The benefits are there, sure,” she says, adding that she is relieved her partner will now benefit from her employer’s health plan as well. But Vaccari is also excited by the fact that she can see how her new position will allow her to work toward making things better for the end user. “I’m now empowered to do what I do best; I’m empowered to shine.”

The full version of this article appeared in the Korn Ferry Briefings magazine. Download it here to learn more about the trends driving employee motivation.

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About the contributor

Chris Mayler is a Senior Client Director for Korn Ferry Advisory, Australia. For the last 15 years, Chris helped organisations maximise the potential of their workforce to drive business performance.

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