By Zoltán Buzády and Achilles Georgiu
Generally, there are three main reasons that jobs are resented, writes Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the psychologist and the architect of the notion of flow (2003). The first is that the job is pointless. The second is that the work is boring and routine. The third is that the job is often stressful, especially when employees cannot get along with a supervisor or colleagues. Of course, these factors can be inflated or mitigated by factors in the general business environment such as hype-cycles or recessions, but the bottom line is that leadership matters! High employee turn-over is particularly a problem in knowledge intensive sectors, such as consulting, or in the outsourcing, and other professional service industries. In these sectors leadership is not only about striking the right balance between standardization and sufficient degree of change, but performance is equal to the quality of service.
If you are a manager in these fast-moving business environments, you are likely to have experienced another typical problem: overriding corporate goals are broken down into smaller divisional objectives, which typically a centrally-administered HR department further divides down into departmental and individual performance measures. Sadly these objectives are often not particularly motivating for your subordinates, do not enhance the output of your team, and may go counter to your personal management and leadership style.
The statistician George Box once said that all models are wrong, but some of them are useful. What is striking is that despite the numerous management models, all aimed at increasing leadership effectiveness and subordinates’ performance, few truly integrate existing wisdom and experience. They tend to overemphasize one or another factor in the leadership equation: over-emphasizing the role of the leader, making false assumptions about subordinates, or ignoring important influencing factors given varying situations. Others substitute the need for personal leadership with corporate vision and with company-wide HR systems. The reality is that we have to change our thinking on some of the premises of leadership, in particular on some common wisdom about motivation. Many still think of a leader as being self-motivated and as someone who has to motivate others. However, leaders do not motivate others, they create more or less successful environments in which motivation and performance can take off. Incentives and other similar tools are only enhancers, but not motivation per se. Only the employees can motivate themselves.
This article helps managers to better understand the underlying dynamics and motivational cycle of employee performance and gives an easy, yet variable tool for leading more effectively. The model integrates many elements of existing practices already effectively applied to lead individuals, teams, and departments into a systematic and flexible approach. It also integrates overriding corporate performance expectations with particular leadership expectations and needs.
By observing your direct reports you will be able to measure their performance and their attitude toward their job. If you systematically and consistently use the same criteria and at given periods, then you will be able to see that they tend to follow a natural wave, a cycle of personal motivation. By taking the right type of action at the right phase, you will not only be more attuned with them as individuals, but you can also become a more efficient manager. You will better know when to increase and decrease their workload, how to interact at the different phases along the absorption cycle, and when to promote or to dismiss your employees in order to increase your departments’ overall efficiency. In addition, by better understanding their motivational cycle, you could even reduce unnecessary employee turn-over rates in your department.
This proposed leadership tool has many parallels to the “Hype Cycle curve on emerging technologies,” which was first elaborated by the Gartner Consulting Group. It describes graphically the maturity, the range, and the business adaptation f new technologies. We believe that the concept can be successfully extended into a much wider context and it is even adaptable for describing the absorption (assimilation) and personal motivation cycles of individual employees or teams.
What is Absorption?
If people are enthusiastic about their job, their subjective effectiveness will also grow accordingly. However, this does not automatically mean that their objective productivity and added-value to the company will also grow congruently. With higher subjective effectiveness, employees are more apt to assume more and more ownership of responsibilities and a wider range of activities.A higher level of perceived personal ownership will help employees accept an increasing scope of duties and their company loyalty will become stronger. Since all of these characteristics are affecting each other and because the elements are strongly interdependent, we use the term absorption for summarizing all these motivational and output-related effects.
The entire curve of the absorption model consists of four time periods or cyclical phases. The time is plotted on the X axis where the four periods are following each other in predefined order. On the Y axis we can track the absorption level indicating the relative level and the intensity of change that is the slope (see Figure 1).
The Four Phases
The four phases of the model are enthusiasm, disillusion, acceptance, and finally stabilization. Technically speaking one phase lasts from one alteration point to the next one (as indicated by the vertical thresholds in the diagram). In practice the duration of each phase can typically range from a few weeks up to a few months or even years, depending on the nature of the work.
Phase of Enthusiasm—Most employees are usually enthusiastic when a new scope of duties has been assigned to them. In a rather short time the inner-driven curiosity, which will turn into enthusiasm, pushes the individuals’ absorption curve to a higher level. This is the phase when the efficiency reaches maximum. Generally speaking, they are highly satisfied and they like what they have to do. This dedication will last until they reach their personal peak, where the schematic curve also reaches its peak point.
Phase of Disillusion–The second phase of the model assumes that a sharp rise in motivation levels and the high productivity will–after a while–be followed by disillusion, decreasing motivation, and lowering performance levels. One major factor for this is that employees start to notice that many of their activities are in fact repetitive and administrative. Over time, they become bored and their prospects are less attractive. This can often result in a drop in their personal performance. Furthermore this is the period when employees might become overloaded and have too many things to do parallel with a lot of details, which are difficult to handle and systemize. The phase of disillusion lasts until the curve reaches its lowest point.
Phase of Acceptance–If people survive the bottom point of the curve we can say that they have become tested members of the organization. People have accepted and mastered the tasks they had been given to do. The overall context of their activities becomes clearer to them and more experience and relevant information make it possible for them to create algorithms which help them to systemize the task difficulties. Over time employees become more self-confident, assertive, and grow in self-efficacy. Being able to “see behind the façade” starts to motivate them again to gain back their earlier effectiveness level. This phase continues until the last inflection point of the curve has been reached, notably that of stabilization.
Phase of Stabilization–In this phase, employees’ performance is the most stable and this is where they are most accountable, and their task becomes routine. Employees are operating at their individual efficiency optimum.
Step 1: How can we measure the absorption level?
All of us have observed in our private and professional life a systematic fluctuation of mood, motivation, and performance over a given time period. For leadership purposes we have found it more useful to introduce the term absorption, which encapsulates several input factors such as motivation, job attitude, productivity, acceptance, loyalty, and initiative, which indicate employee performance.
Step one is to determine which of these different personal factors are of leadership importance. Ideally as a leader you would have a mix of centrally-determined HR measures plus some measures which are important to you in order to increase your leadership efficiency. Our advice is also to include some factors suggested by your direct reports or your team members. Similar to the Management-By-Objective and the Balanced-Score-Card technique, these personal indicators are then jointly established and agreed with your employees. Similarly to the concept of the BSC, you periodically evaluate the personal trends. Practically, you quickly jot down a few numbers and comments. The more often you measure, the more realistic and more precise results you will have.
We do not recommend tracking more than ten indicators because you may lose the essence of the technique. In the IT service support area useful indicators for monitoring employees’ absorption could be: deadline accomplishment, work quality, responsibility, separateness, service readiness, work time observance, creativity, professionalism, communication, and teamwork. After defining the indicators the next step then is to value your employees within a scale interval, e.g., between 1 and 5. You can ask your employees to do the same evaluation on themselves, for their other colleagues, and even for you as their leader. By consequence the plotted picture of all your employees may become more realistic and objective and you may even take some immediate actions if you notice any sensible deflection between the estimations. The outcome can be visualized by the absorption radar as shown in Figure 2. If you aggregate the results of your employees, you may get a picture of your whole team.
Step 2: Ups and downs of our personal motivational cycle
The absorption level, which is the aggregate of these personal factors, will initially increase during the first period, the period of enthusiasm, reach a peak point, and then fall back in the phase of disillusion. After reaching the bottom point, the third phase of gaining acceptance will gain momentum and then lead to a levelling out in the fourth, stabilization phase. Thus, everybody will typically show a
wave-like pattern, following their motivational lifecycle. The concept of wave phenomenon is not a new one. It was much propagated by John J. Gabarro (1987). As a leader you constantly have be sensitive enough to understand which phase your employees are in.
The outcome of the employee survey is still based on subjective factors, but if we repeat the evaluation recursively within predefined time intervals (without looking at the previous results during the rating), then in the long-term our picture may be considered relatively objective. In many workplaces, a quarterly survey has proven to be enough but in other areas the monthly one may be more suitable. Having more parallel measurements we may determine more precisely the actual absorption level. The interior area of the radar visualizes the alteration of the employees’ – or in aggregated format the whole team’s – absorption level. It is generally true that the surface of the radar is strongly connected to a given period of the absorption curve (as seen in Figure 3).
Step 3: Introducing the abandonment levels
Now let your employee and your leadership skills interact with each other, knowing both parties do in fact set their own personal top and bottom level of expected performance (see Figure 4), which they then can constantly adjust according to changing situations. Let us illustrate the effect of the abandonment levels in detail.
Jump-out. In booming business cycles, such as the dotcom or IT-bubble was, new employees may get a new, competing job offer, which means in practice that their jump-out level has been lowered by the new external job opportunity. They might decide to quit the job in their enthusiasm phase, feeling that they can do better elsewhere. Conversely in times of recession normally the jump-out level of
employees is higher and as a result they remain with the organization until an opportunity opens for them.
During the late 1990s, IT experts could easily find a new job with better salary even before they had actually reached the peak point of their absorption curve. The typical job-hopping time cycle in this industry was around a year or even shorter in those years. For example: Attila R. started his career during that time as a software developer. He reached his peak point by Y2K just around the crash, the result of which was that his nomination level has moved higher due to the fact that the need for IT services had dropped dramatically. Seeing that his efforts didn’t bring the expected results and his prospects had been minimized, the disillusion phase came quickly. However, his manager noticed that his performance and motivation decreased, so he decided to send Attila to a subject specific training, which helped smoothen the curve by bringing him sooner to the acceptance and then to the stabilization phase. It took him a few years to maximize his personal absorption curve in the stabilization stage by becoming a subject matter expert in the area of IT Service Management. Because the market in this service area has started to grow again, this has resulted in the lowering of the official nomination level, thus generating a lot of opportunities. One was a new position, which then started a new absorption curve for Attila.
Nomination level—internal promotion. As a leader you should also set what absorption-level you or the organization expects sufficient for nomination into a higher position. Individuals may enter an organization when promotions are not possible, and they get promoted only during their stabilization phase. We have found that many managers are not so inclined to set this level explicitly, whilst others have little influence over internal promotion matters. Others lose respect by constantly raising the bar for their employees.
For example: Elena T. started her career as Process and Procedure Group manager in the Controlling-Quality Assurance section of the finance department with an international telecom company in Hungary. After the initial few months of enthusiasm and disillusion she reached a rather long-lasting acceptance phase during which she successfully managed her team as well as many domestic and international projects. At the end of her second year she reached her stabilization phase. On the initiative of the HR department she then got promoted into a completely new area: Senior analyst in the Research and Analysis Office of the Products and Markets Department part of the commercial division.
Failure level—personal re-orientation. In their disillusion phase new employees might also realize their personal limitations or their true inner expectations about their career expectations. If they hit their self-set personal failure level, then it is likely that they exit the organization, re-orient themselves, and start a new curve in a new occupation.
For example: Peter B. joined the trainee program of a multinational FMCG company in Central Europe. After reaching a junior management position he felt alienated in his work environment and went-off to complete an internationally accredited coach training course in London. Returning to Central Europe, he founded his own company, which offers personal coaching and inspiration encounters for fellow disillusioned managers.
Laying-off. Depending on business circumstances and on company policy, managers usually also set the minimum level of expected absorption/performance. If those are not met then the employee will be dismissed. Interestingly we have observed situations with a very peculiar combination where the organizational layoff level was actually set lower than the individual’s personal failure level. In those organizations many employees have reached their level of personal resignation, but still remained in the organization. Alarmingly for managers, the reported percentage of employees with internal resignation is ever-increasing in many western economies.
Government and other public organizations including state-universities across Central-Eastern Europe cannot compete with the competitive salaries in industry and are lacking a professional human resource system. Irrespective of the political transition in the region, these organizations have difficulty attracting new employees and thus cannot pick and choose when laying-off would be necessary. As a consequence they have retained many staff from older times. It is characteristic at these universities that performance is not measured and the minimal expectation levels are also unknown to faculty and administrative staff, thus diminishing international competitiveness.
The four abandonment levels themselves are also changing over time. In order to keep the model as simple as possible, every level is represented by a simple line, showing the actual position of the level at a certain moment in time. The four abandonment levels are boundaries, which can be modified (raised or lowered) over time, however for ease of understanding Figures 4 and 5 show them as straight lines.
Step 4: Acting as a leader to change the motivational cycle
How can a leader influence employees’ motivational cycle and effectively reduce unnecessary employee turn-over? Your task is not merely to measure the absorption and then to set the layoff and nomination levels, which often is done by the HR department and frequently over-regulated by company policies. In fact, the real task is to enhance employee effectiveness and motivation by creating a stable and inspiring environment by smoothing out the employees natural cyclical ups and downs. A large amplitude in the curve is not good news. In fact it means falling from a rather high peak point to rather low bottom point in very short time, then having to regain momentum again. This is rather wasteful for individual employees and a strain for their peers and team members (see Figure 5).
Step 5: Ways for managers to influence the absorption curve
Leaders can influence most of the parameters of the model. The aim is to smooth the absorption curve and to foster a higher level of performance during the stabilization phase. There are several ways for managers to actively influence and guide the evolution of the absorption curve.
The first way to modify the shape of the curve is to influence the duration of the four periods of the model. The most important is to keep the time interval of the disillusion period as short as possible. Otherwise, both leaders and employees may run out of time and out of tolerance. The length of the stabilization stage is also a significant element: leaders should try to prolong it as long as possible, since this is the period of maximal productivity. The enthusiasm and acceptance periods are not so important from this point of view; but still, they should be kept relatively short in comparison with the total lifecycle of the absorption curve, mostly because both periods are unstable.
The second way to influence the model is to actively set the abandonment levels and define expected performance. Every leader should set management levels (nomination and lay-off levels) for every employee individually. The actual height of the levels can also be influenced by external factors. For example, if the amount of tasks and the scope of duties is suddenly increased then the nomination level will move downward in order to localize those employees who are the most suitable to cover the new assignments. Similarly, the lay-off level will also move downward because even those employees with low performance levels can be able to accomplish some of the increased amount of tasks. Depending on the situation, the inverse may also occur. In tight periods both the nomination and the lay-off levels will tend to move upwards. This means that those people whose absorption curve is somewhere around their bottom point may have to leave the company and those who should have been nominated may be deferred and no higher assignment level will be given to them for the time being.
The third way is by choosing the appropriate interventions at the right time. This can be done by periodically observing at which stage of the curve the employee is at a given time. The leader then should be able to take appropriate measures, in particular in the inflection points, around the three action points (see Figure 5).
Customer service in a software development house was provided by a small team that consisted of three engineers (John, Andrew, Gabor) and their manager (Alex). The success of the team was based on the kind of tasks assigned to each of them. During the enthusiasm period employees easily take on even urgent and important tasks since their excitement gives them power to take on the challenge. Andrew was a new team member just climbing the curve of enthusiasm and as such he was the person taking every opportunity. John was the senior IT engineer, already in his stabilization phase. He could take on any kind of task since he already had the required routine. Gabor had reached and got stuck in his disillusion stage. During the disillusion phase the best was to avoid giving him urgent and important tasks since the lack of enthusiasm would have increased the amount of errors. With more mistakes anybody can get more disappointed and consequently the absorption level somewhat lowers. Interestingly, any kind of not-so-urgent but important task may have a positive motivational effect and raise the absorption curve itself. Alex did try to apply this. But since Gabor knew that his manager had not defined any layoff level, the result was that his disillusion stage remained at low level for a rather long time. Finally his boss thought that the only possible solution was to fire Gabor. The effect on the other team members was noticeable: a 30% increase in performance because Gabor was not there anymore to pull down the team.
Over-shooting point: Here the danger is that the employees become over-enthusiastic. Thus, try to bring them back to earth by directing them, emphasize technical initiation, and carefully select planned team building activities. Avoid any kind of extra motivation despite their brilliant performance. This seems to be in stark contrast to common wisdom, where one is being rewarded for increasing performance.
Exhaustion point: We recommend giving a bonus, benefits, or additional training in this phase when absorption level is decreasing. This should help the employees have a soft landing. Equally important and often much more redeeming is to emphasize the personal dimension in your leader-follower relationship. If you are leading a team, place more emphasis on techniques that aim at overcoming resistance and those that foster mutual understanding of team members and create a common goal.
Productivity point: When reaching the productivity point, your goal as a leader should be to increase your employees’ long-term efficiency by heightening the absorption level as high as possible. You can achieve this by reducing your technical super vision roles and empower your employees. As László Mérő wrote, your employees will avoid getting into a difficult and challenging situation, not when the defined objective is hardly achievable, but when the objective itself is not clear for them. Thus set exact goals, rather than prescribe the process methods. If your team becomes productive, enhance it further by supporting it and allow them to take risks and failures.
How to refine the Absorption Model of Leadership
Clarify your leadership concept in discussions with your employees
- Explain what you are expecting of them, how they will be measured, what the consequences and action steps could be at the beginning of your leadership relation.
- During review periods explicitly make reference to your leadership concept.
Use a balanced-approach to personal indicators
- Use a number of different measures (organizational goals, your leadership expectation, criteria set by your team), but not too many, so that you can easily handle them.
Extend the sources of observation
- As you become more acquainted with this leadership tool, gradually extend the observed personal indicator factors by introducing elements of self-evaluation, then delegating the evaluation of some indicators to the other team members, and if you are very brave you can ask your employees to evaluate your leadership impact on their behaviour.
How can the leader further influence the absorption curve and achieve stable productivity?
- This can be done by shortening the time period of the first three phases in order to reach stabilization phase as quick possible by:
- By clarifying the nature of the motivational-cycle to the employee during the initial meetings.
- By fostering socialization through appropriate training and teambuilding exercises.
- By fostering the learning curve through professional training off-the-job and on-the-job rotations.
- But be aware of the cycle speed of your industry segment! An IT project environment is much more short-lived than a pharmaceutical research and development environment.
What if stabilization phase is reached?
- When people are performing effectively and efficiently, minimal leadership intervention will be required of you.
- However, employees are exposed to more or less severe impetus from within the company and the outside environment. A promotion or change of the team members clearly would start a new absorption curve. In many instances a new project, a job rotation, or a major business trip can restart the curve. But so can a new company strategy, a reorganization, or changes in the personal sphere.
Would it be ideal to be constantly in the enthusiasm phase?
- Clearly no! On the long run people will sooner or later burn-out and an unhealthy level of high employee turnover will be the result. Many companies with over-stretched “up-or-out” policies, have to spend enormous efforts and costs on creating alternative systems to retain their valuable organizational memory. This approach to leadership offers a practical tool to effectively lead your employees and team members, particularly in a fast-cycle business environment with much project work. Its simple methodology can help you integrate both the centrally-set organizational goals and your personal leadership expectations when dealing with your employees. The absorption model is just a tool and the real worth of it depends on how well and how systematically management applies it in daily practice.
Csíkszentmihályi, M. (2003). Good business: Leadership, flow, and the making of meaning. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
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Mérő, L. (1996). Mindenki másképp egyforma. Budapest, Hungary: Tericum Kiadó Kft.