How Should You Go About Motivating Your Employees?

Motivation Is Key To Success

Lately I have been receiving a rash of e-mails promoting seminars designed to motivate employees (most end up in my spam folder where they rightfully belong). From what I read in them though, most do nothing more than teach managers how to give pep talks to inspire their workers. It all looks rather frivolous to me. Motivating employees is certainly not new. Businesses have been studying this problem for many years now. Here are some techniques I’ve learned over the years:

First, there is no single technique to motivate workers. As humans we have different “hot buttons” which motivate us. What works for one person, doesn’t necessarily work for another. It all depends on the worker’s values, interests, intelligence, ambition and their perspectives, not to mention the urgency of the job at hand. This means a manager must be able to shift gears at any given moment to invoke the reaction he desires from his workers.

Whip and Chair Approach – Some use heavy handed dictatorial tactics to force their workers to jump through hoops.This may come in the form of severe threats and open criticisms from the boss (which we used to call a good “dressing down” or “ass chewing”), but most today come in the form of what we commonly refer to as “micromanagement” whereby the boss closely supervises the activities of the workers. Nothing happens without the boss’ personal stamp of approval.

This is a “Theory X” type of scenario whereby the boss believes the workers are lazy and possess limited intelligence and judgement to perform the work. Consequently, the manager feels it is necessary to make all of the critical decisions. Sometimes this type of motivation is warranted, but under most situations it is not. In fact, such an on-going approach tends to promote a “prisoner” or “slave” mentality among the workers, which is certainly not conducive for promoting corporate loyalty, and morale naturally suffers. Such an approach may be needed for rare occasions where extreme measures are needed, but it tends to be detrimental to the workers as a regular diet.


As opposed to the “Whip and Chair,” some managers have the knack to nudge workers along with some friendly bullying. The intention here is not to threaten the worker, but motivate him by questioning his ability to perform a given task, e.g., “What’s the matter, is this too much for you to handle?” Unfortunately, some managers take this too far by suggesting the worker will not advance unless he kisses the manager’s ring (or some other posterior).

Salesmanship – in most situations, the manager must play the role of salesman whereby he enumerates to the workers why it is necessary to conquer a given assignment. Here, the manager is appealing to the worker’s intellect, reasoning, and perspective. For this to be successful, the workers have to have a good basic relationship with the manager and be conscientious workers. Regrettably, not everybody is; some can be just plain “thick” which is why techniques such as the “Whip and Chair” are still needed. Nonetheless, the manager is ultimately playing the role of mentor to the workers, where he encourages them and, by doing so, develops trust with the staff who feel less threatened.

Incentives – money, prizes and perks can influence worker production, be they substantial or trivial, such as a bonus, time off, gift coupons, or a keg party. Pep rallies fall into this category. It’s interesting how people react to “freebies.” I guess it’s a little like winning the lottery. However, it’s not so much for what they won, but the fact they won at all. “Employee of the month” offers worker recognition which some people thrive on, but I have also seen such programs backfire and cause morale problems due to jealousy. Sometimes simple recognition, such as a public “thank you” or “congratulations” can go a long way to motivating employees.

Lead by Example – One of the most effective motivational techniques is actually the simplest to perform, hence “Lead by Example” where the boss creates a model for others to aspire to. If the boss is careless and uncaring, the workers will likely follow suit. Conversely, if the manager appears to be on top of his game, the staff will have an idea of what the boss expects and try to emulate him.

Policy and Procedures Manuals – Quite often the worker simply doesn’t know what is expected of him in terms of duties, responsibilities, and systems. Consequently, there is a tendency to wander inside or outside of their scope of work, either doing too much or too little. Policy and Procedures Manuals (aka, “Employee Handbooks”) become a useful reference point for the worker and helps promote quality in workmanship. However, beware of creating a bureaucracy of paperwork which thwarts productivity. Although such manuals are useful for “do’s and don’ts”, try not to threaten the workers that they will be terminated if the slightest rule is violated. Such a threat tends to create a paralysis among the workers, and productivity diminishes.

Special Attention – Ever since the famed “Hawthorne Effect” was discovered in the 1920’s, industrial psychologists have understood the need to make workers feel special in order to produce superior results. This ultimately suggests changing the physical surroundings of the workers thereby demonstrating you are investing in them. By introducing such things as a new office environment or new tools and equipment, workers tend to believe they are being pampered by management in order to produce something special. It also contributes to creating an “esprit de corps” among the workers. For example, the Navy SEALS as opposed to a regular seaman, or the Army’s Green Beret as opposed to a regular soldier. In other words, the manager is ultimately saying, “You’re special, now act like it,” and this can be a powerful stimulus. Doing nothing more than simply assigning a worker to a “special project” can do wonders for the person’s ego. It conveys a message that the boss recognizes the worker’s abilities.

Managing from the Bottom-Up – This is based on the belief that workers must live a meaningful and productive life which is derived from the principles of Theory Y. Unlike Theory X “micromanagement” where the worker is assumed to be lazy, “Managing from the Bottom-Up” assumes the worker is intelligent and should be empowered to make more decisions about their assignments. Management still provides direction in terms of assignments and objectives, but the individual worker assumes responsibility for planning, estimating and scheduling the work effort, and seeing it through to successful completion. Managers are not abdicating control, quite the contrary. Instead, the worker assumes responsibility for supervising themselves and reports to management on progress. This means the manager spends less time supervising, and more time managing. The only hindrance here is that some workers shutter at being held accountable for their actions and prefer others telling them what to do, thereby enabling an excuse when something goes awry. However, we have found true “professional” workers prefer the “Managing from the Bottom-Up” approach as opposed to “micromanagement.”

Again, there is no one motivational technique that can be used universally, primarily because the manager must consider such things as the worker’s intelligence, sense of pride, greed, fear, self-respect, family, security, and work ethic. In all likelihood, the intuitive manager will try to motivate his workers using a compendium of techniques, not just one. If you are comfortable giving pep talks, great, but realize it will not motivate everybody. Different strokes for different folks.