30 Ways to Motivate Employees

On 13 August, 2012 in Human Resources by Sue Crampton

So many times as Managers and Practice Owners we are faced with the realities of work life balance, pressures of work and staff who are impacted by personal and professional aspects on a daily basis. This in turn can cause a range of issues in the workplace, thus impacting motivation and morale of the individuals and the team. It is important to get to know your staff as individuals to determine what motivates them. Each person is unique.

Consider for one moment what makes you ‘tick”? Why is it that some people we work with are highly motivated and others seem reluctant to participate and see “the glass half empty”? Consider the following key questions for your practice.

What motivates people?

No question about human behaviour is more frequently asked or more perplexing to answer. Yet knowing what motivates another person is basic to establishing   and maintaining effective relations with others. It is absolutely fundamental to the practice of management - the art of getting things done through people. What can several decades and millions of dollars worth of behavioural research tell us about motivation? Plenty, as you might imagine. But many of the researcher’s conclusions are contradictory and some of them based on just plain lousy research. Motivation researcher Dean R. Spitzer, a frequent contributor to TRAINING presents his personal synthesis of the literature a collection of principles derived from theoretical and applied research on human motivations.


1. Use appropriate methods of reinforcement.

Reinforcement is the key to human motivation. People behave in anticipation of positive and rewarding consequences. By using reinforcement appropriately, you can significantly increase motivation.

Appropriate reinforcement means the following:

  • Rewards should always be contingent on performance; if you give rewards when they aren’t deserved, they will lose their reinforcing value.
  • Don’t give too much reinforcement; too much is almost as bad as none at all.
  • Reinforcement is personal; what reinforces one person may not reinforce another. Find out what is pleasant for people and use these pleasant consequences as reinforcers.
  • Dispense reinforcers as soon as possible after the desired performance occurs. Then the employee will be more likely to associate the reinforcer with the performance.

2.  Eliminate unnecessary threats and punishments.

Threats and punishment have sometimes been considered acceptable motivational tools, but contemporary thinking contradicts this view.

Threats and punishment are negative; they encourage avoidance behaviour, rather than positive behaviour. In addition, the effects of threats and punishment are often unpredictable and imprecise. Threats and punishment are also inconsistent with the other steps presented in this article.

3. Make sure that accomplishment is adequately recognised.

Most human beings need to be recognised, but individual accomplishment often seems to get lost in larger organisations. People need to feel important, regardless of how modest their position is. Frequently, the focus of recognition on organisations is entirely on the upper echelons.

4.  Provide people with flexibility and choice.

Whenever possible, permit employees to make decisions. Choice and the personal commitment that results are essential to motivation. People who are not given the opportunity to choose for themselves tend to become passive and lethargic.

5. Provide support when it is needed.

And make sure that employees don’t hesitate to make use of it. One key characteristic of the achievement-oriented person is the willingness to use help when it is needed. Employees should be encouraged to ask for support and assistance; otherwise they will become frustrated. Asking for help should be considered a sign of weakness; it should be considered a sign of strength.

6.  Provide employees with responsibility along with their accountability.

Nothing motivates people as much as being given appropriate responsibility. Appropriate responsibility means responsibility that is neither too high nor too low for the employee. Often employees are held accountable for tasks that are others responsibility. This is unfair and can lead to frustration. Few people will reject accountability as long as the tasks in question are within their areas of responsibility.

7.  Encourage employees to set their own goals.

At least they should participate actively in the goal setting process. People tend to know their own capabilities and limitations better than anyone else. In addition, personal goal setting results in a commitment to goal accomplishment.

8. Make sure that employees are aware of how their tasks relate to personal and organisational goals.

Routine work can result in passivity and boredom unless employees are aware of how these routine tasks contribute to their own development and the success of the organisation. A few extra minutes of explanation can increase productivity tremendously.

9. Clarify your expectations and make sure that employees understand them.

We all know what we mean when we say something but often others do not. Unclear expectations can result in a decrease in motivation and, ultimately, frustration. In order to motivate others effectively, you must let them know what you want them to do and how they are expected to do it.

10.  Provide an appropriate mix of extrinsic rewards and intrinsic satisfaction.

Extrinsic rewards are rarely enough to motivate people on an ongoing basis. Employees also need to obtain intrinsic satisfaction from their jobs. Intrinsic satisfaction results from tasks that are interesting, varied, relatively short and challenging. In addition, you should realise that excessive use of extrinsic rewards, such as praise, can overwhelm intrinsic satisfaction. So be careful to provide an appropriate level of extrinsic rewards while permitting employees to experience the personal satisfaction that results from doing an appropriately challenging job well.

11. Design tasks and environments to be consistent with employee needs.

Because people have different needs, what satisfies one person obviously may not satisfy another. The observant supervisor is aware of the more basic  needs  of employees, such  as affiliation,     approval, and achievement. People with different dominant needs require different working conditions. Although it is impossible to totally individualise working conditions, it is possible to give employees the opportunity to work with others. Employees with a high need for achievement should be given more task oriented activities. Good common sense can result in effective work design.

12. Individualise your supervision.

People also require different supervisory approaches. In order to maximise individual motivation, you must treat people as individuals. Some people need closer supervision than others, and some people don’t need much

Supervision at all. Motivation can be increased through facilitative supervision, providing the minimum amount of supervision that is required by the individual for optimal performance.

13.  Provide immediate and relevant feedback that will help employees improve their performance in the future.

Feedback is most effective when it follows performance. Feedback should be relevant to the task and should provide employees with clues on how they might improve their performance at the task. Never give negative evaluation feedback without providing informational feedback.

14. Recognise and help eliminate barriers to individuals achievement.

Many poor performers might have all the skills and motivation needed to accomplish a certain task, but they are held back by some barrier or obstacle. If this barrier is not recognised and removed, this individual might remain an underachiever indefinitely. Many people who are labelled “failures” or “incompetents” are simply being hindered by relatively minor obstacles that supervisors haven’t recognised. The tragedy is that, after a while the employees may begin to accept the “failure” label as a fact.

15. Exhibit confidence in employees.

Confidence usually results in positive performance. The “self­-fulfilling prophesy” is one of the most significant features of current thinking in motivation. There is a great deal of research to support the contention that people who are expected to achieve will do so more frequently than others.

16. Increase the likelihood that employees will experience accomplishment.

The old saying that “nothing succeeds like success” definitely appears to be true. Every employee should be provided with the opportunity to be successful or at least be a significant part of success. All employees who have contributed to a successful project, no matter how small their contribution might appear, should be given credit for the accomplishment.

17. Exhibit an interest in, and knowledge of each individual under your supervision.

People need to feel important and personally significant. Take time to get to know each person individually. Learn names of spouses and children; ask about families; find out about leisure activities. This personal knowledge of employees will provide clues as to what reinforcers can be used effectively in the future.

18. Encourage individuals to participate in making decisions that affect them.

Nothing tends to inhibit motivation like a feeling of “powerlessness”. Employees should be made to understand that they have control over the things that affect them. One of the most reliable research findings in motivational psychology is that people who have no control over their destiny become passive, viewing the “locus of control” of their lives as external to themselves. Ultimately, this externality can result in learned helplessness.

19. Establish a climate of trust and open communication.

Motivation is highest in organisations that encourage openness and trust. As previously mentioned, threat is one of the great obstacles to individual motivation, and it must be eliminated. Research on organisational climate and the preference for Theory Y philosophies of management tend to support this point.

20. Minimise the use of statutory powers.

Rule of law is sometimes needed, but it does not encourage increased motivation. Whenever possible, the threat of laws, rules and consequent punishment should be discouraged. Attempts should be made to manage democratically, encouraging employee input and participation.

21. Help individuals to see the integrity, significance and relevance of their work in terms of organisational output.

The literature on job design emphasised that employees must be able to see that their tasks are related to the output of the organisation or the department. In addition, employees should be encouraged to work on “whole” tasks rather than piecework whenever possible. Significance of work and the consequent intrinsic satisfaction may well be the most important determinant of work motivation.

22. Listen to and deal effectively with employee complaints.

Often task-irrelevant problems can greatly reduce productivity when they are not dealt with. It is important to handle problems and complaints before they get blown up out of proportion. In addition, people feel more significant when their complaints are taken seriously. Conversely, nothing hurts as much as when others view a personally significant problem as unimportant.

23. Point out improvements in performance no matter how small.

This is particularly important when employees are beginning work on new tasks. The need to reinforce frequently during the early stages of learning is well known. In getting employees to improve performance, frequent encouragement can be useful; however, it should be reduced as the employee becomes more confident and proficient.

24. Demonstrate your own motivation, through behaviour and attitude.

Nothing turns people off faster than supervisors who preach motivation but don’t practice what they preach. The motivator must be motivated; this means animated, striving, realistic, energetic and so on. Modelling appropriate behaviour and motivation is a very powerful tool indeed.

25. Criticise behaviour, not people.

Negative feedback on performance should never focus on the performer as an individual. A person can do a task poorly and still be a valuable employee. Too many people are inappropriately labelled “dumb” , “incompetent” and “unqualified”. The self-fulfilling prophesy lives and drains motivation.

26. Make sure that effort pays off in results.

Effort is the currency of motivation; this is how people demonstrate it. If effort does not pay off, there will be a tendency to stop trying. A popular principle of human behaviour, the “principle of least effort”, applies here. People will expend the least effort necessary in order to obtain satisfactory results. This principle indicated that effort is a scarce and valuable commodity. If effort does not result in accomplishment, effort will be withheld, just as money will be withheld if it’s purchasing power decreases too much. To a very great extent, motivation is the effective management of effort.

27. Encourage employees to engage in novel, and challenging activities.

The literature on intrinsic motivation tends to support the need for both novelty and challenge in order to facilitate feelings of intrinsic satisfaction. Supervisors can provide employees with opportunities to try new things and assign tasks that are increasingly more difficult (but not too difficult).

28. Anxiety is fundamental to motivation, so don’t eliminate it completely.

There is a common misconception that all anxiety can increase motivation. That’s why some of the best work sometimes gets done under pressure of time. Know your employees and determine the optimal level of anxiety.

29. Don’t believe that “liking” is always correlated with positive performance.

Too often, people believe that liking something is a prerequisite for performing it well. But educators know that just because a student likes a course or instructor does not mean that he or she will learn the material well. “Happiness indexes” are not always good measures or predictors of motivation. If a task results in reward and if the results are satisfying, the tasks itself could be boring and distasteful. In other words, a task can be intrinsically boring, while the consequences are highly motivating.

30. Be concerned with short-term and long-term motivation.

Sometimes rewards and incentives are so remote in time that their motivating impact is weakened. People should be given short-term, as well as long-term, reinforcement. Conversely, people who receive only short-term reinforcement and incentives tend to fall short of optimal motivation: they lack a long-term perspective on their jobs. Effective motivational programs utilise a complementary set of short-term and long-term incentives and rewards.

Using these principles will undoubtedly make you more effective as a supervisor and a developer of others. Of course, nobody could be expected to do everything presented in this article, nor would it be wise. There is always the possibility of motivational overkill”. If, however, you can gradually integrate these principles and considerations into your behaviour, I can assure you that you, your employees and your trainees will experience greater satisfaction.


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