Workplaces: The procrastinator

How to motivate employees

Want to know what really motivates employees? If so, please note that Piers Steel is the man, and he doesn’t like anyone who dallies with dallying while researching his particular area of expertise.

Canadian Business first contacted the Haskayne School of Business professor back in January — after I was assigned to write about workplace procrastination. The Calgary-based academic immediately forwarded papers on the topic, which indicate mankind has a growing case of “quintessential self-regulatory failure.” I printed them in March, read them in June, then e-mailed Steel back in August, asking if he had time for an interview. I suggested some point in the future. “How about now?” was the curt reply.

Shortly after, I learned I had a problem, one that wasn’t entirely my fault. After all, as a salaried writer with no bonus directly linked to get this particular assignment done, it wasn’t hard putting it off.

Steel, a human-resources and organizational-behaviour specialist who has studied procrastination for more than a decade, gives today’s companies a failing grade in motivation — especially large organizations, which tend to “pay lip service to HR,” and fail to recognize the need for timely rewards.

Most procrastinators are not like lazy people, who simply don’t care. “They don’t want to procrastinate,” Steel says. “They just don’t know how to stop.”

Like smokers who won’t quit despite knowing smoking is illogical, not to mention potentially deadly, procrastinators need another reason to break what they know is a bad habit. But workplace incentive programs, if they exist at all, tend to focus on year-end bonuses, which Steel says just don’t do the trick, at least not in the first three quarters. He recommends monthly or quarterly rewards. They don’t have to be big, just nice, maybe even a simple dinner-for-two coupon.

But whatever you do, don’t insult employees with demotivating service awards, such as cheap penknives. “What does a crappy gift say?” asks Steel. “It says management doesn’t really care. But offering them is a common practice.”

Managers should also eliminate invitations to waste company time. Simply turning off new e-mail notification alarms, or pop-ups, can improve employee productivity by 10%.

And, as Steel notes, “That’s almost another month worth of work.”