Professional Employees are more difficult to Motivate

Professional employees are different from your average employee. And they’re more difficult to motivate. Why? Because professionals don’t respond to the same stimuli that nonprofessionals do. Professionals like engineers, accountants, lawyers, nurses and software designers are different from nonprofessionals. They have a strong and long term commitment to their filed of expertise. Their loyalty is more often to their profession than to their employer. And typical rewards, like money promotions, are rarely effective in encouraging professionals to exert high levels of effort.

Professionals see their allegiance to their profession, not to the organization that employs them. A nurse, for instance, may work for Mercy Hospital but she reads nursing journals, belongs to nursing associations, attends nursing conferences, and hangs around with other nurses during her breaks at work. When asked what she does for a living, she’s more apt to respond, ‘I’m a registered nurse’ than ‘I work at mercy Hospital’.

Money and promotions are typically low on the professional’s priority list. Why? Because they tend to be well paid already and they enjoy what they do. For instance, professionals are not typically anxious to give up their work to take on managerial responsibilities. They’ve invested a great deal of time and effort in developing their professional skills. They’ve typically gone to professional schools for several years and undergone specialized training to build their proficiencies. They also invest regularly in terms of reading, taking courses, attending conferences, and the like to keep their skills current. Moving into management often means cutting off their ties to their profession, losing with the latest advances in their field, and having to let the skills that they’ve spent years developing become obsolete.

This loyalty to the profession and less interest in typical organizational rewards makes motivating professionals more challenging and complex. They don’t respond to traditional rewards. And because they tend to give their primary allegiance to heir profession rather than to their employer, they’re more likely to quit if they’re dissatisfied. As an employer, you might be justified in deciding not to exert the effort to develop and keep professionals they’re unlikely to reciprocate loyalty efforts you make.

Let’s first address the question of whether professionals with advanced degrees are really that different from nonprofessionals. One of the differences often cited regarding professionals is their allegiance to their profession. But this isn’t unique to the so-called degreed professionals. For instance, plumbers, electricians, and similar trades-people aren’t considered professional but they typically see themselves as affiliated to their trade or union rather than their employer. Similarly many autoworkers at Ford and GM give their primary allegiance to the United Auto Workers union.

Even if you accept that professionals are different from non professionals, these differences may make it easier to motivate professionals rather than harder. For a large proportion of professionals their work is their life. They rarely define their work week in terms of 8 to 5 and five days a week. Working 60 hours a week or more is often common. They love what they do and often prefer to be working rather than doing anything else. So as long as they enjoy their work, they’re likely to be self motivated.

What factors are likely to determine if they enjoy their work? Job challenge tends to be ranked high. They like to tackle problems and find solutions. They prefer jobs that score high on the job characteristics model; that is, they want jobs that provide variety, identify, significance, autonomy, and feedback. Professionals also value support recognition and opportunities to improve and expand their professional expertise.

So how do you motivate professionals? Provide them with ongoing challenging projects. Give them autonomy to follow their interests and allow them to structure their work in ways that they find productive. Provide them with lateral moves that allow them to broaden their experience. Reward them with educational opportunities – training, workshops, attending conferences that allow them to keep current in their field. In addition reward them with recognition. And consider creating alternative career paths that allow them to earn more money and status without assuming managerial responsibilities. At Merck, IBM and AT&T, for instances, the best scientists, engineers, and researchers gain titles such as fellow and senor scientists. They carry pay and prestige comparable to those of managers but without the corresponding authority or responsibility.

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