Motivating and Retaining Innovative Employees in a Bureaucracy

by Melba Kurman

Motivating and Retaining Innovative Employees in a BureaucracyIf universities want to play as participants, not gate-keepers, in our nation’s innovation ecosystem, university administrators need to learn to create a work environment that attracts, motivates and retains high-performing employees. When people talk about issues involved in transforming federally funded university research into products, medicines and companies, little attention is paid to the people who manage the day-to-day operational details. I don’t mean faculty – they’ve got it good: tenure, freedom to set their own agenda, and advancement opportunities galore. No, I mean the administrative staff, the 9-to-5’ers, the unknown soldiers who spend their days hunkered down on the frontlines of the great divide between the university and the rest of the world.

University staff employees don’t get much recognition. Professional advancement opportunities inside the university’s patent office are limited. If universities want to play effectively in an era of open innovation, they’re going to need to learn to attract, keep and inspire the people most allergic to slow-moving, rule bound, dead-end university staff jobs. The staff members that dream of bigger things and bigger paychecks typically use their tour of duty inside the university to springboard into more lucrative and interesting work somewhere outside the university. Tax attorneys and financial analysts do the same thing, when they spend a year or two working for the IRS or the SEC and then enter private practice. In fact, high staff turnover has been identified as an organizational barrier to improving the current university technology transfer process (Siegel, Waldman and Link, 2003).

Bureaucratic organizations have their value (they offer tradition and stability). I respect the fact that some productive and intelligent employees prefer the routine and predictability of working in a bureaucracy – there’s nothing wrong with punching out at 5 pm to go live your “real life.” However, if universities are going to add value to an innovation-based economy, those in management positions need to learn to set up office climates that also attract, retain and motivate the staff that would otherwise seek greener pastures, the staff who are *not* comfortable with a stagnant bureaucratic culture.

Unfortunately, despite the presence of individual university administrators who buck the trend, on the whole, university personnel management structures are slow to change and are stymied by a medieval employee caste system, where non-faculty staff are planted firmly at the bottom. Non-profit organizations are particularly un-incented to learn to motivate employees because the downstream costs of unmotivated employees don’t directly hit the bottom line, at least not in the short term. In my experience, another contributing factor is that university administrators are not subject to bottoms-up performance reviews to gauge employee morale. Nor are high absenteeism or high turnover rates – two widely recognized indicators of an under-performing and poorly managed unit — factored into a unit manager’s performance review. Of course there are managers of university units that are progressive thinkers and fantastic motivators. But even adept managers can find it hard to build a productive culture when surrounded by a larger hierarchical, rule-bound organization.

Carrots and sticks are only partially effective

Some university administrators claim that since they’re limited in their ability to reward and fire, they can’t get the best performance out of their employees. Money or punishments are motivators at work, but it’s not as straightforward as you think.

True, bonus pay can be a good motivator. One study found that universities (mostly private universities) that use bonus pay to motivate their technology transfer staff generate, on average, about 30-40% more income per license (Sharon Belenzon and Mark Schankerman, 2007). However, these researchers found that incenting staff with bonus pay had no significant effect on the number of licenses generated, only the income earned per license. The vast majority of the day-to-day work in managing a university’s intellectual property portfolio does not involve closing deals on revenue-earning licenses. As a result, bonus pay can only go so far in keeping staff motivated the rest of the time. In addition, the majority of public universities are unable to offer performance bonuses.

Other research indicates that the traditional carrot and stick approach is actually less effective for motivating and retaining productive employees in work environments where the nature of the work is non-menial. There’s a great video on this topic from Dan Pink‘s book Drive below. The video was created by RSA Animate (their web site has lots of similar videos on interesting topics).

The video summarizes a number of studies on employee motivation and concludes that the greater the sophistication of the work and the worker, the less effective are simplistic carrot and stick management methods. For simple, straightforward tasks that have simple rules and a “right” answer, monetary rewards and punishment work. When a task gets more complicated and requires conceptual and creative thinking (e.g. managing intellectual property), rewards or discipline don’t work as well, if at all. As far as the motivating effect of pay goes, the sweet spot is to pay people enough so they don’t have to worry about money. After that, intangible rewards become more effective.

According to the RSA video, three intangible factors lead to better performance and personal satisfaction at work.

  1. Autonomy: Employees want to be self-directed. Traditional notions of management run afoul of this. If a manager wants engaged and productive employees, she needs to hire self-directed employees and then stay out of their way.
  2. Mastery: people want to get better at things. Employees want to improve their skills, even when there are no direct, short-term rewards for doing so.
  3. Purpose, or making a contribution: Both employees and organizations need some kind of transcendent purpose. When an organization’s sole purpose becomes profit, the work becomes meaningless, “working for the man.” When a workplace climate gets foul, employees suffer. Unhappy employees leave, provide poor customer service, have high absenteeism rates and are less willing to go that extra mile.

Intangible rewards are powerful but hard to manage and measure

One of the leading thinkers on human motivation, Frederick Herzberg calls the process of enriching a job “job loading.” He describes two ways that managers try to make employee jobs more motivating: horizontal job loading and vertical job loading. Horizontal job loading consists of typical management techniques to “challenge” employees by adding more tasks to their daily routine without adding more autonomy, offering recognition, or providing them input into the process. A good example of horizontal job loading is to give an employee additional responsibility without additional authority, or by closely measuring their work with crude inputs, such tallying up keystrokes or keeping close track of their physical whereabouts. Bureaucratic managers tend to prefer horizontal job loading.

The other way to enrich a job, vertical job loading, seems like chaos when introduced into a traditional top-down centralized organization. Vertical job loading involves removing controls, increasing employee accountability, and giving an employee end-to-end control over a natural unit of work, such as having decision-making authority over an entire product or process. Vertical job loading involves introducing new and more difficult tasks, and assigning individuals specific or specialized tasks so they can become experts. Vertical job loading involves granting employees freedom in their job, and implementing a culture of greater transparency. For example, permitting staff to directly share information amongst one another rather than having a manager filter the information.

Conclusion

Intangible rewards are better motivators when the nature of the work requires skill and creativity. Traditional carrot and stick approaches work in lower-skilled environments, but their benefits taper off as the work becomes more abstract and complex. However, a culture that offers intangible rewards involves loosening the net. Creating a culture that relies on intangible rewards is risky to implement, requires real leadership skill and paying attention to staff needs, and is difficult to measure. Many managers and administrators, particularly those who have made managing bureaucracies their career, are loath to give up the control that would make their employees do their jobs better: autonomy, the ability to learn and grow, and connecting the work to a larger and greater purpose.

It’s easy to say “this is not my problem.” However, if you’re a university administrator, high staff turn-over is expensive and low morale kills productivity. Not to mention the opportunity cost of losing good potential employees who will not work in your tech transfer office thanks to the stories they’ve heard through the professional grapevine. If you’re a faculty member, graduate student, entrepreneur, or business person seeking insight or access to university research or patents, you’re only as good as the technology transfer person who handles your case. If each time you email the university’s technology transfer office and discover you have to start over from square one with a new licensing officer, this is your problem.

There are many fantastic university managers out there that are confident enough to let their employees shine, that inspire genuine respect and spend their time adding value to their team’s efforts. I’ve met a few of them, but they’re in short supply. For all kinds of reasons, university offices too frequently end up with the poor managers, the ones that don’t have the confidence or leadership abilities to lead a unit that can keep pace with the faster moving world outside the university. Big Picture talk of evolving our current model of university technology transfer is important. But let’s not lose sight of the short term “Little Picture,” the day-to-day work climate of the university employees that manage university intellectual property portfolios.

photo image: the management experts.com

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Melba KurmanMelba Kurman writes and speaks about innovative tech transfer from university research labs to the commercial marketplace. Melba is the president of Triple Helix Innovation, a consulting firm dedicated to improving innovation partnerships between companies and universities.

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