5 secret weapons for motivating employees

Throwing more money at people is rarely the best solution, says Stanford professor David Kreps.

by David Kreps
Last Updated: 27 Mar 2018
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Down to business

When it comes to motivating employees, and in particular employees who work with their heads as well as their hands, one size rarely fits all.

Firstly, effective motivation will depend on the specifics of your situation. A business guru who claims to have a simple and universal solution to employee motivation is a snake-oil salesperson. There are many different ways to motivate employees, some economic, some more psychological, and what will work for you depends on your detailed situation.  

Secondly, different employees doing the same sort of job for the same employer often require different motivational schemes. In a survey of 207 top-level executives from around the world, I asked the question: ‘How similar are your direct reports when it comes to motivating their best efforts?’

Nearly 60% of the respondents answered, ‘my direct reports are quite different, [so to] motivate their best work, I must vary the techniques used.’

To motivate your employees effectively, you must educate yourself on the variety of tools available and how they interact. Because employment is both an economic and social relationship, you must understand your relationship with your employees and their relationship with you (their employer), their careers, and their work, all through economic and social and psychological lenses.  

As you do so, here are five things that I’ve found managers sometimes frequently forget or misunderstand:

‘Interesting work’ is your motivational secret weapon

If you and your employee can find work that she will find interesting or personally fulfilling, motivation flows effortlessly.

The objection that ‘what she finds interesting and fulfilling isn’t what this organization needs’ can be well taken, but only somewhat. You and she should sit down and see if you can find a match between what you need and what she would really like to do.

You may be trying too hard

While it depends on the nature of the employee’s connection to the organization, her job and her work, in many cases the motivation to do a good job and to be seen as doing a good job is already there. When this is the case, piling on motivational schemes can hurt rather than help. All you need to do is to remove the de-motivators.

Is your list of motivators too short?

My colleague Chip Heath asked executives what they thought was effective in motivating themselves and what was effective in motivating their peers.

I’ve replicated his findings over and over – namely that when it comes to herself, a respondent talks about the ability to learn and grow, to do important work; when it comes to her peers, she emphasizes pay and other tangible, economic rewards.  

There is controversy over how these differences are explained but, in my opinion, most managers under-estimate the effectiveness of the ‘softer’ motivators on their employees.

Keep the big picture in mind

Today’s objectives and crises often inspire solutions that fail to take into account the bigger picture. The development of an employee’s human capital – valuable in the future but potentially costly today – is given less attention than more immediate needs.

Fairness within the organization – how one employee is treated and its implications for how other employees perceive their treatment – likewise plays second fiddle. Employment is not a one-off economic transaction and employees engage in social comparisons when considering how they’re being treated and if it’s fair.

Reward your middle-level managers for nurturing and developing employees who report to them

If, as is often the case, you sometimes emphasize today’s problems too much and the bigger, longer-term picture too little, the way you evaluate the managers who report to you probably leads them to similar conclusions.

Be clear with them that an important part of their job is the development and fostering of the employees who report to them. And then show that you mean it.

David Kreps is the Adams Distinguished Professor of Management at Stanford Graduate School of Business. His book The Motivation Toolkit is published by W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., £20.00.

Image credit: spectrumblue/Shutterstock

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