Employee Engagement

Figuring out how to motivate employees is no easy challenge. Business has typically equated motivation with money (the carrot and stick approach), and it seems this formula is wrong!

Take a look at Dan Pink’s popular 18 minute internet video from the TED conference in Oxford. His science of motivation makes a case for how business has it all wrong when it comes to incentives. I found it fascinating, intuitive and congruent with what I have experienced for many years as an executive coach. What really motivates talented, smart workers are factors including autonomy, mastery, and purpose (not more money). Pink cites over four decades of scientific studies enlightening us that the carrot and stick approach can actually significantly reduce the ability of workers to produce creative solutions to problems. His formula for work satisfaction and motivation is to connect our human need to direct our lives, to learn and create and to improve our world and ourselves.

What motivates us (once our basic survival needs are met) is the ability to grow and realize our fullest potential. Wise leaders create workplace environments and cultures that support autonomy, creativity and bringing the best of their human talent to meet company goals. Google reports that 50% of their successful products originate from employee’s 20% “innovation time”—Google employees devote 20% of their work time (one day), creatively innovating on projects of their choosing.

Additionally, Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi helps us comprehend motivation with his human state of “flow” theory. Flow is a human state of high engagement and satisfaction that occurs when we bring the best of ourselves forward to meet a challenging task or goal. If an employee has a high degree of skill and ability to do something with low challenge, they are typically apathetic or bored. Conversely, if an employee is given a highly challenging task or role with little skill, ability or talent to succeed-they will likely be in a state of anxiety, worry or stress. Neither is conducive to performance.

Flow is what happens when we have a high degree of challenge (with a clear goal) while we also have a high capability of skills, experience and talent to succeed with that goal. Akin to an athlete being in the “zone”, being in flow requires three conditions: 1) an activity with a clear set of goals, 2) the confidence that one is capable of doing the task at hand and 3) clear and immediate feedback.

Given all this theory, here are my coaching tips for how to motivate your employees:

  • Provide your people clear goals and expectations. Identify what success looks like. Make sure that before assigning tasks and roles that you are reasonably confident the individual has both the competence and the commitment to succeed. Then keep providing ongoing clear feedback. Feedback should be specific to behavior not the person or their intentions.
  • Identify your employee’s natural gifts and talents. For the price of a book, you can utilize the Strength finder 2.0 assessment. This easy to use and inexpensive internet based tool can help participants identify their top 5 strengths. Also, ask your employees how they think they can bring their best potential to the needs of the business?
  • Give people a sense of purpose. Identify and communicate how their job matters to larger organizational or business goals. People want to be a part of something that is bigger than they are. Help them identify their sense of “purpose” with the work they do.
  • Delegate more and give competent committed workers autonomy. People want to have control over their work. I have never met a client who enjoyed being micromanaged! When I hear talent looking for an exit strategy, its often due to their feeling they have no autonomy in the job or their talents and strengths are being underutilized
  • Offer employees continuing educational training opportunities. Mastery motivates! People want to get better at what they do. And the good news is once they do, they will perform at a higher level for your business. It’s a win win.
  • Praise and promote. Say thank you, recognize good work and catch people doing something well. Promote from within. Its sound strategy. Dedicated employees who have already proved their value deserve more autonomy and having a culture of promoting from within motivates other employees.

Leadership Should Recognize Staff

DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON many employers recognize employees for their hard work and contributions throughout the year with parties, bonuses and gifts. These annual rewards are important to boost employee morale, but so is demonstrating ongoing appreciation for individual excellence throughout the rest of the year.

If you have ever been publicly recognized for your workplace contributions, you know how great it can feel. Wise leaders get this and look for ways to treat people like winners.

Decades ago, both Maslow (1943 with his hierarchy of human needs) and Herzberg (1959 with his workplace job satisfaction and motivational factors) identified the basic human need for appreciation and recognition. Today’s employees rank recognition as the most important factor to job satisfaction. Mary Kay Ash (who rewarded her top performers with pink Cadillacs) astutely noted, “There are two things people want more than sex and money: recognition and praise.”

Recognizing worker contributions is the simplest motivational tool available to managers, yet it’s shockingly underutilized. Sadly, according to the Gallup survey folks, 60 percent of American workers claim they have received no praise or recognition in the past year.

Many “old school” bosses balk at giving workers a pat on the back for “just doing their jobs.” They underestimate the importance of visibly appreciating others. Times and generations have changed. Today’s youngest workers, the “millennials”(born after 1980), grew up with doting parents and receiving trophies on sports teams for showing up. This generation is positive, confident and expects encouragement and acknowledgement of their contributions. Bosses who never say thank you will drive away today’s talent. Dissatisfied workers often result in lower morale, motivation and performance and more employee turnover.

Remember that good behavior can be extinguished. If no one acknowledges efforts and contributions, employees may easily conclude it isn’t worth bothering with anymore. Smart managers understand that what is recognized (and rewarded) today often will be done again tomorrow.

An important disclaimer — give acknowledgment where it is genuinely deserved. It undermines your credibility to lavish reward or praise for mediocre or non-performance (i.e., giving someone the employee of the month award simply because it was “their turn”).

Employees tell us in countless surveys that getting encouragement helps them perform at a higher level. Yet less than half of all managers claim they actually give recognition for high performance. They say things like:

  • “They know I appreciate them.” Really, how do they know unless you tell them?
  • “I don’t have the time.” The best leaders make time to motivate their people.
  • “They’re professionals, they don’t need it.” Everyone needs recognition.
  • “I feel uncomfortable giving praise.” Practice would help.

It’s a simple courtesy to recognize a job well done. Don’t assume they know; tell them! A personal, heartfelt thank you is often deeply appreciated and motivating, particularly when it comes from the boss.

One of my favorite recognition stories is a boss who sent a brass band to a person’s workstation to trumpet what she had done to save a key client account. Now that’s recognition!


Consciously think about how to reward success. Make a list of all those whose work for you or with you and the things they have done well or beyond expectations. Walk around and look for what’s right. When you find it, here are tips on how to recognize it.

  • Just say it: “Thank you.”
  • Take the team to lunch to celebrate completion of a project.
  • Bring in dinner for those staying late to complete something.
  • Publicly share recognition and positive customer letters at company meetings, in e-mail, employee newsletters or bulletin boards.
  • Find an object that creatively symbolizes recognition. (Charles Schwab passes around a stuffed giraffe to employees who “stick their neck out.”)
  • Write a personal thank-you card.
  • Follow up with a worker’s suggestion to let them know their idea has been implemented.
  • For any company recognition programs, make sure the “rules” are consistent, clear and fair. Research shows that the most effective company recognition programs are ones that employees design.