Motivating Employees: A New Guide for Managers


Get to work.

Do your job.

Sell more.

These might be what you want employees to do, but brusque commands aren’t exactly the world’s greatest motivator. Depending on personality (and even generation), employees are motivated by different things.

The easiest approach to motivation is, of course, to use competition.

Competition can work, but as you’ll see in a bit, it also can have a negative effect in the long term. Truly motivating employees requires more than dangling a carrot in front of them and asking them to be the fastest runner. It requires a more careful approach.

Understand Generational Differences For Employee Motivation

Each generation has a different working style, and are motivated to work in different ways. The Goldbeck blog gathered information outlining some of the different generational styles when it comes to the workplace.

Baby boomers (1943-1960) are motivated by money, title, recognition, and respect. Generation X (1960-1981) is motivated by a job that fulfills on all levels. They crave a work-life balance and personal freedom. Generation Y (Millennials) are motivated by the feeling of community and that their work has greater meaning.

The key thing to note here is that for Generation X and Millennials, money is not the huge motivational factor that it is for older workers. It is a reward, it ads value, but it is not the sole reason to take a job. It is also important to note that while giving an employee time off as a reward might motivate younger workers, older workers might feel offended if they see working as their chance to get ahead.

No generational summation is accurate in describing how individual people react, but it’s worth understanding that there are general generational differences that affect how motivational techniques work on different employees.

General Approaches To Motivating Employees

While there are many different tips and tricks for motivation, it’s worth understanding some general motivational approaches and concerns so that you can develop your own. Before you jump into rewards and other motivational programs, be aware of a few things that have an impact on employee motivation. You want to get to the root of real motivational issues, not create new problems.

  1. Watch for distorted thinking. Employees who have distorted thinking patterns will struggle with motivation. These include all-or-nothing, over-generalization, jumping to conclusions, magnification/minimization, relying on emotional reasoning, mislabeling, and taking things personally.
  2. Watch for procrastination. Struggling with procrastination isn’t necessarily a lack of motivation. It’s a misdirected focus possibly based in fear, lack of confidence, and an inability to tackle onerous or scary projects. Help employees deal with procrastination first, and then see if motivation is still the issue that you need to address.
  3. Watch for time use. Some employees are very busy, work hard, and don’t seem to get the things that matter done. It’s not a lack of motivation, but it’s an inability to use time well. Rewarding employees for sales won’t help them use their time better if they don’t have the skill set to get them there.
  4. Watch for problem mindsets. Employees with a lack of self confidence, low self esteem, or who dwell in the “can’t, should’ve” world of thinking might be highly motivated if they could get past those blocks. Help them achieve success, then worry about other motivational techniques.

Notice something in this list?

One of the first steps to motivate employees is to address issues of confidence, fear, time, and negative thought patterns. It isn’t about rewards or incentives at all, but foundational skills that every employee needs.

Motivate Employees To Be More Innovative

Are you trying to get your employees to be more creative, and think outside of the box on their own? There are motivational techniques you can use to promote innovation.

Give employees freedom for ideas.

As you saw, different generations have a different concept of how leadership should look. If the leadership in your business is an older generation, they might struggle to give younger employees the freedom to run with an idea.

If possible, let employees carry their creative idea to fruition. Make them responsible for their own project’s success and failures. Let them see their idea become a reality, or learn trying.

Let them have a bit of fun.

Creativity can happen everywhere, but it tends to happen where there is the possibility of peripheral activity that can trigger an idea. If employees are restricted to focusing on very specific work-related tasks and don’t have the freedom to joke around or have even minor “fun”, they won’t have those happy accidents or conversations that jump start creative ideas.

Don’t mistake instant for innovation.

Most people assume that in order to be innovative, it has to be fast. Instant. First out of the starting gate. And that often leads to pushing employees hard, constantly, to be fast on their feet.

Give your employees time to rest, room to breathe, and don’t always be cracking the whip. If they successfully finish a project in record time, don’t make that their new norm. Nothing demotivates like knowing that the better you do, the more you’ll be expected to be perfect.

A common term in today’s work culture is the concept of a “sprint”, but remember: it is not a sprint if you keep your employees running. Sprints are hard and fast, and then there’s a break for breath.

Motivate Employees To Be More Productive

The easiest way to get employees to increase productivity is through competition and reward.

The problem with that approach is that the rewards can lose their appeal over time. If the reward becomes common, or is handed out too often, it doesn’t seem like a reward as much as it seems like an expectation.

Understand that there are different kinds of rewards.

The trick is to understand the different kinds of rewards, and when to use them. Not all rewards are competitive with another employee; some are competitive with oneself.

  1. Big and rare rewards. These rewards are your classic “do this, achieve this, and you can get this” reward. Don’t use them often. But if you do use them, you need to ask a lot of your employees and then give them a seriously amazing reward. They work best on big projects or campaigns that you really want to see traction and success on, and get the whole team excited.
  2. Scheduled rewards. These are regular and expected rewards that are possible for everyone to receive at regular times. Employees know, for example, that after every yearly review, if they’ve shown measurable improvement, they might get a bonus. These are expected rewards, but they can still motivate because they know what behavior is expected from them.
  3. Rewards they control. Rewards that are based on daily work and performance can still motivate a person who cares. They don’t do much for the apathetic employee who is just clocking time, but they do work for conscientious employees. These are rewards the employee can dial up and down according to their own effort.

Share profits with employees.

Sharing profits with employees is a reward, yes, but it doesn’t have the deadening effect that competition-based rewards do. When the employee associates productivity with increased income, that motivates them to continually be productive instead of being productive while a competition is running.

This profit-sharing also makes employees feel like they have buy-in, and they tend to encourage other employees to be productive, too, since they all profit. If your employees are more motivated by being part of a good cause, perhaps donating a percentage of profits to their chosen non-profit would work better.

Be open and honest with employees.

This one is a bit tricky; there are some things employees really don’t need to know, and depending on generational preferences, your employees might be put off by leadership coming to them with all the nitty gritty details.

But, if your work culture or employees are so tuned, transparency can be motivating.

No, people don’t think “I’m going to work harder to find out more information from my boss!” but they do work harder when they feel confident that they know all the information and aren’t contributing to a business they can’t trust. This is especially true of younger workers who want their work to have a positive impact on the world. If they think they are working for a company that is helping the environment, they want to know for sure that that is the case.

Basically, look at your employees as if they were investors. When you see them that way, you will understand how trust is a part of motivation.

Encourage employee loyalty.

Loyal employees also have a sense of buy-in, and they will be productive because they care.

Creating loyalty in employees is manyfold, but a key concern is that of leadership and management. There is nothing like a crappy boss who meddles and makes life miserable to turn employees into slugs who don’t really care if they do much work at all.

Employees are only loyal to bad bosses as long as it takes for them to find a different job. Then they’re gone. And while they’re biding their time, they have no real incentive or reason to work hard.

Let employees feel the benefits of their labor.

It’s common for managers to receive bonuses when their department has impressive sales, or great productivity numbers. But think about that, in terms of motivation: would you feel motivated to be incredibly productive so someone else can get the reward? It’s especially noxious if the manager is a jerk.

Whether they get a bonus based on sales or new leads, this is the classic reward that employees can control.

Put an end to unnecessary pressure.

All work has pressure and stress. Customers, support, sales — stress and pressure are a natural part of the process. But adding unnecessary pressure? Huge demotivator.

Last year, several stories came out that suggested Amazon employees were struggling to work, much less innovate, in a work environment that had become high-pressured. These types of high-pressure situations come from bad management techniques, excessive competition between employees, managers and leadership who pitted employees against each other for their own gain, constant push on employees and cracking the whip for “better further faster!”.

Have a high turnover rate? Struggling with retention? Seem to only hold onto employees who are barely limping along while all the high-production workers leave? Lots of complaints from employees? Think about the weather: there’s a lot of air movement when high pressure fronts meet low pressure fronts. Your business is no different. Employees will move from high pressure to low.

Simply reducing the pressure employees feel is a subtle way to motivate them to stay and work.

Motivate Employees To Work Together Better

Getting employees to work together, not against each other, isn’t always easier. You have to be careful with some of the motivational techniques you might use, since thoughtless reward programs might pit employees against each other.

Competition is good, but make sure it is fair.

Competition is a powerful motivator, but you need to be sure you use it wisely. While you don’t need to hand out participation trophies to everyone for every project, you want to make sure that employees are competing against themselves, for the most part.

Essentially, competition should spur people on to improve themselves in order to win. If it encourages them to denigrate or exhibit negative behavior towards other employees, it’s a bad idea.

Additionally, if you use the same type of competition that routinely rewards a particular personality type, you’ll create frustration and dissension as the same employees will see success while others will not. If the same people “win” the same type of competition over and over, you’ll have some employees lose confidence in themselves, they’ll stop trying, they’ll feel like failures, or they’ll resent the employees who continually win.

Be aware that competition can sometimes kill teamwork.

An additional side effect to competition that you might not consider is that it can kill teamwork. If collaboration is a big part of your workplace, you want to be cautious about how you use competition as a motivator.

When it’s every man for himself, the larger organization and its goals are forgotten. Competitions between groups can be effective; people work together for the reward. Individual competition, however, ends teamwork.

Motivate employees to be ethical.

Employees who have ethical standards make a better team than those who are willing to sacrifice ethics for their own advancement.

This is tricky; you can’t exactly bribe people in order to foster ethical behavior. But you can be cautious with what you use to motivate other behavior, looking out for unintended side effects that might have an effect on ethics.

Consider how OSHA put an end to companies rewarding employees for being safe. It sounds like a good reward, but in the end, it caused some employees to not report unsafe issues simply because the didn’t want to lose the reward. The reward for safety created employees who would lie for the reward.

Discourage gossip and backstabbing.

If you have an employee situation where gossip, complaining, and backstabbing are at work, deal with it immediately. That kind of workplace drama will distract and keep people busy with things that don’t matter.

Employees wrapped up in office drama are more motivated to feed off of or contribute to it than they are to do work.

Motivating employees is definitely not a one-size-fits-all approach. Age differences, personality differences, and even self-confidence levels can have a huge effect on who is naturally motivated and what you can use to spur someone on to go past that.

Motivating Employees: A New Guide for Managers