How to Motivate Employees at Any Level

What motivates employees to go the extra mile? Is it an annual bonus? A better work-life balance? Or maybe just…a slice of pizza?

High employee engagement can nearly double the odds of your overall business success, so why is it that only 13 percent of today’s employees report feeling engaged at work? Turns out, traditional incentives alone may not be enough to motivate employees to go above and beyond. Here are the top non-cash ways to keep your employees motivated and engaged across your organization, whether they’re supervisors or just starting out:

Think beyond the bonus

It’s not just about the money. According to a 2016 study in New York Magazine, factory workers who completed their tasks for the day were offered a choice of three incentives: a cash bonus, free pizza, or a compliment from their boss. Surprisingly enough, workers who accepted the cash incentive actually performed worse than employees who chose to receive free pizza or compliments.

Yes, your employees are coming to work for a paycheck. But the quality of their work depends on much more than their take home pay. Another study produced similar results: when asked what motivates them to go above and beyond, employees ranked “camaraderie and peer motivation” first. Money took a low 7th place. And while free food motivated the factory workers more initially, by the end of the week, it was the workers who received compliments who performed best.

Make compliments part of your company culture

So, what does this mean for your organization? It’s good, and a little complicated: good in that you may not have to turn to bonuses every time, but more complicated in that you may have to get creative about what actually motivates your employees.

Peer motivation is a great place to start. If you’re a manager and your team isn’t already in the practice of calling out good work, make it a new habit. End each shift with “highs and lows.” Challenge each team member to share something about the shift that they struggled with, but then also the high points–particularly if it involved another team member. Encourage them to call out moments where they solved a problem through teamwork, or where another person stepped up.

Even if there was a situation where things didn’t work out as planned, if an order was incorrect or a customer left in a huff, it’s still important to recognize what did work–in top performing teams, a business researchers found that the greatest factor between the most and least successful teams was their ratio of positive and negative comments to each other. The most successful teams gave an average of nearly six positive comments for every negative one, while the least successful gave three negative comments for a single positive one.

Critical feedback is important, but it shouldn’t be your only form of feedback. Balance the positive with the negative, and make sure your employees are aware of where they’re succeeding, as well as where they need to improve.

Show them their success matters

According to Gallup, only 13 percent of employees worldwide feel engaged at work. While individual employee’s job satisfaction may not seem like an obvious factor to your bottom line, workers who ranked highest in engagement outperformed poorly engaged employees by 20 percent in sales, by 21 percent in profitability, and had 24 percent less turnover. Considering that losing a single full-time employee could cost your business almost $2,500, employee engagement is crucial, not questionable, to profitability.

So why do so many employees feel disengaged at work? One of the biggest reasons: they don’t feel like their input matters. Half of employees feel disrespected by their boss, and 76 percent of millennials say they would leave a job if they didn’t feel appreciated. In order to keep employees engaged and proactively tackle any risk of turnover, you have to show them that they’re not just another number.

An easy way to do this: start by proving that their input is valuable. Ask for their feedback and find actionable ways to incorporate it, even if it’s just a small change. By simply showing that you’re willing to listen, you can prove that their opinion is worth being heard.

Also, don’t forget–even something as simple as employee of the month plaque means more than you think. While 76 percent of millennials are willing to quit over lack of appreciation and employees who don’t feel recognized at work are twice as likely to say they intend to quit in the next year, employees who are recognized are more loyal, more engaged, and more likely to not miss any workdays or switch jobs in the next year.

Switch it up

Simply changing how you incentivize employees can go a long way in jumpstarting motivation. After all, employee incentive programs focus on one of the most fundamental aspects of human psychology: conditioning. When you reward employees with the same incentives, they can lose their value over time. Imagine if every time you received a reward, you received the same thing. Would you go beyond, or would you only exert the minimum amount of effort that got you the same reward last year?

In order to keep motivating and challenging employees, your incentives may need to change. And since money may not be the best motivator anyway, try a few different solutions. Instead of rewarding with cash, offer high-performing employees alternative incentive options like:

  • The chance to pick their work hours
  • Opportunity to choose their favorite shifts
  • Work from home one day per week
  • Catered lunch
  • Charity donation to in their name to a cause they’re passionate about
  • Extra vacation days (or first-dibs on time off during a high-traffic holiday)
  • Paid certificate to a work-related course or professional development class
  • Chance to create a new product, service, or menu item

As you experiment with new incentives, track which ones have the greatest employee response. You’ll likely find that the same incentives don’t work for everyone, and that’s okay. You can also still add in annual bonuses or increases in commission based on performance, but unlike expected rewards, trying something new may give your employees a reason to work harder–especially if the rewards are in limited supply. There are only so many holidays throughout the year, and if they want Labor Day weekend off, they’ll be motivated to make it happen.

Set the same standards for management as employees

A quick way to undermine employee morale? Prove that the rules matter—but only to certain people. It’s easy to grant extra privileges to supervisors and other high-level employees. However, it also creates resentment. Instead of believing everyone is truly working under shared standards and goals, employees may feel that no matter how hard they work, higher-level employees won’t be under the same scrutiny.

Make sure that you’re setting the same basic performance expectations for your management and lower-level employees, and be clear where everyone’s expected to contribute. For example, at Zappos, all new employees are trained in the customer call center, regardless of what their job title will be after, and all employees are expected to pitch in during high-volume call times. By doing so, Zappos makes it clear that customer service is a top priority and value shared by all its employees–no matter what level they work at.

If employee motivation is a key goal for your business, try equalizing base expectations and performance metrics across all roles. Most importantly, be transparent about them. Let lower-level employees know that their bosses and managers are responsible for checking off the same core boxes, and vice versa. It may be that everyone is required to work the register or phones during peak hours, or fill in at the reception desk as needed.

Give them the right resources

Finally, show an interest in their long-term success. Set up feedback conversations between employees and supervisors laying out step-by-step paths to promotions and advancement. Again, transparency is key. Employees should know what’s expected if they want to pursue leadership roles, along with what resources are available to help get them there.

Start a mentorship program and offer additional incentives to employees who volunteer. Offer to contribute to paying for a new certificate or skills class. Provide flexible work options if employees do decide to go back to school. Whatever resources you decide to offer, a roadmap for long-term success shows employees that you value their personal development and care about their future contributions–all fuel for higher employee engagement and motivation.

Motivating employees at any level starts with understanding what creates lasting employee engagement in the first place. To reduce turnover and increase profitability, start by incentivizing employees with more than just cash, whether it’s the chance to work from home, a charity donation, or extra vacation days. Make it a regular practice to compliment as much as you critique and hold all employees to the same core standards. Most importantly: prove to your employees that you’re invested in their long-term success, and they’ll invest in their work.

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