Motivating Employees: Look Beyond Money
When people are financially invested, they want a return.
When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.
When you’re a manager, no matter what size your department is and how far removed you are from the CEO’s office, part of your job is to define the mission and goals of your department (preferably keeping them in line with the overall mission and goals of the company). By rewarding employees who successfully help the department accomplish its goals (often by accomplishing their own individual goals), leaders reinforce what is valued in—or even required by—a job.
Unfortunately, in more than two decades in corporate America (during which I managed hundreds of employees), I’ve come across many leaders who don’t see the value in recognizing and rewarding their employees. Because people who feel valued at work are more likely to be satisfied and motivated, those leaders miss out on many of the benefits of an engaged workforce:
- higher productivity
- higher success rates
- better customer service
- higher safety rates
- greater job satisfaction
- lower turnover and absenteeism
- greater happiness
The more motivated employees are, the more likely they are to put forth their best efforts on behalf of the company. And those best efforts translate into great success for them—and for the organization.
When companies want to motivate their employees, they often turn to the old standby: money. No doubt, raises, bonuses, and other financial incentives can have a strong positive influence on employees. But money isn’t the only motivator out there. In fact, it’s not even the best motivator: in recent years, study after study has revealed that employees usually rank money well below the intrinsic awards associated with work that’s well done (and well appreciated).
Before you take any action to motivate your team, you must first motivate yourself, because your behaviors and attitudes have a ripple effect throughout your department. When you hate your job, your team members are more likely to hate their own jobs. When your employees see that you are stressed out, the chances are good that they will be stressed out as well. As we all know, negativity is contagious. Fortunately, so is enthusiasm! Remember that when you’re excited and motivated about your job, it’s much easier for those around you to have similarly positive feelings about their jobs.
Motivation that comes from within an individual has a more lasting effect on that person than external rewards (such as money, titles, corner offices, etc.) whose positive effects soon fade. Here are some strategies for helping employees develop intrinsic motivation.
- Keep employees in the know. No one enjoys feeling like a cog in a machine. Employees are more engaged in their work and with the company if they have a sense of the “big picture,” not just of their small slice of the organization. So give them insight into how the company operates (and how it is doing financially). With this knowledge, employees are more likely to feel that the organization is their company—and not merely a place where they work in accounting or HR or marketing.
- Assign interesting and engaging work. Management theorist Frederick Herzberg once said, “If you want someone to do a good job, give them a good job to do.” So give your employees good jobs by making sure that their responsibilities include something of interest to them. Even in jobs that are inherently boring, having at least one or two stimulating projects can motivate employees to perform well on the mundane tasks, too.
- Invite involvement and ownership in decisions. Most companies don’t prioritize involving employees in decisions that affect them. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider that practice, though. Keeping employees in the loop is not only respectful (and makes them feel like part of the company), but it’s also practical: people who are closest to a situation typically have the best insight on how to improve it. Employees on the ground floor of an issue often know what works (and what doesn’t) and can provide valuable insight into how to resolve a problem quickly and effectively. In addition, employees who have a hand in crafting a solution feel ownership of it and are therefore more invested in working toward its successful implementation.
- Increase visibility and opportunity. Don’t make assumptions about how much visibility and opportunity your employees want. Through experience managing thousands of employees, I’ve found that everyone likes to be recognized and noticed by more than just his or her supervisors after doing a good job. Whether or not they want promotions or more challenging work, all employees flourish when they receive more visible recognition and opportunities that are personally meaningful. At Oxygen, for example, I assigned one employee to a task force that lay outside the scope of her day-to-day work but was still within her skill set. This committee placed a high value on her experiences with other companies prior to joining Oxygen, and she flourished in this new role. Being given this responsibility confirmed to her that her input mattered—a belief that motivated her on all of her subsequent projects!
- Provide autonomy. Employees value the freedom to do their jobs as they see fit. So if your employees are able to get their jobs done (and done well) on their own, leave them alone! When you give high-performing employees more autonomy, you increase the likelihood that those employees will continue to perform as desired. Even with new recruits who haven’t yet proven themselves in your company, you can provide autonomy in work assignments by telling those employees what needs to be done without dictating exactly how to do it.
- When you let go of all the decision making, you not only ease your own burdens but also empower your employees to develop and demonstrate their own skills in leadership, organization, and communication.
- Be loyal. This can be a challenge for employers, but as a boss you should demonstrate loyalty to your employees. This can include being transparent (when possible), providing accurate feedback designed to improve the employee’s performance, and giving credit to employees for their work (rather than taking credit for it yourself).
- Show appreciation. It’s amazing how many managers don’t thank their employees for completing tasks. Yes, it’s their job to do that work, but why not take a moment to say a simple “Thank you”? All employees like to be appreciated, and whether appreciation takes the form of small gestures or big statements, it can go a long way toward motivating—and retaining—them.
- Cultivate a fun environment. It’s common sense that when people like their workplaces, they’re more likely to stay with their companies longer and put more energy into their work. Even if your company is a more “buttoned up” or formal environment, you can still try to inject some fun even at just the department level.
- Show empathy. In any workplace and with any employee, sometimes “life just happens.” When employers understand that problems arise outside the office and are willing to work with employees in times of a crisis, that can go a long way toward building the goodwill that’s key to securing an employee for a longer tenure. For example, one of my direct reports at Oxygen was barely able to hold it together during those first few months after he had twins. Thanks to stress and sleep deprivation, his work suffered. Up to this point, his performance had been outstanding, and I knew he was going through a rough patch. So instead of punishing him, I eased up a bit on assigning projects to him. He was able to catch his breath, and at month four his performance sprang back stronger than ever! Because I helped him through his difficult period, once it passed he was even more committed to me and to the company.
- Coach and mentor. Unlike the goddess Athena, who sprang from her father’s head as a fully grown adult ready to take on the world, people don’t start their careers with all the knowledge and skills they’ll ever need. They have to learn those things along the way—often with the help of their managers and senior colleagues. (Does this describe your own work history? Most successful leaders have had a great mentor in their past!) By cultivating coaching and mentoring relationships within your own organization, you not only help your employees develop their skills but also strengthen the relationships among your team members—both of which can increase engagement.
Money can buy a lot of things, but it can’t buy everything. And in the workplace, it can’t buy the attitudes and knowledge that drive employee engagement. Want to motivate your employees to do their best (both for themselves and for the organization)? Appreciate and reward their efforts and successes, and give them the recognition and support they need to thrive.
 Herzeberg, Friederick. 1968. “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” Harvard Business Review, January–February, pp. 109–120.
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Question: I've been out of work for a while. Do I take a job offer if the pay is awful?
Answer: Yes, taking a job, sometimes any job particularly if you have not worked in a while is good not only for your paycheck but for your mental health as you search for the job you really want. There is no shame in accepting work for honest pay. You are in transition and you need to remind yourself of that and not feel bad if the job you have now or are considering isn't willing to pay you what you are worth. There will be a job out there that will and you need to use all of your resources available including interim work to realize your goals. Taking a low paying job in the meantime may bruise your ego but it won't kill your pride or your wallet.