Low-Cost Ways to Motivate Your Employees

Recently, I've been interviewing managers about what they wish they had known earlier about being a manager.  The most common answer?  "I wish I'd better understood how people are motivated by different things."  It sounds obvious, but when we're on a team working on the same kinds of things with the same kind of approaches, we can sometimes be lulled into thinking that everyone on the team is more similar than different.  

While it may be true that most people are looking for what Dan Pink has labeled autonomy, mastery, and purpose, what that actually looks like in practice is different.  For one employee, "autonomy" might mean the opportunity to work more independently, maybe teleworking more, and for another, it might mean getting to choose which projects to work on or which teammates to work on them with.  

It’s important to figure out what will resonate most for each employee.  What makes this tricky is that sometimes the employees themselves aren’t entirely sure what motivates them.   You can get around this by asking them for examples of times when they were really happy in their work or job, and what specifically about the situation made it positive for them.  Here are some of the common motivating factors and how to address them.

Note: these factors come from Frederick Herzberg's two-factor model of motivation


This is probably the area where employees vary most in terms of what they find rewarding and what they find uncomfortable, so tread carefully.  Some employees might really appreciate a written thank-you to acknowledge a significant contribution (perhaps from your boss or your boss’s boss), where others might want something more public in front of the rest of the team.  Make sure you know what each of your team members prefers, ideally before the opportunity to recognize them arises.

Sense of achievement

This will sound strange, but status/progress reports could actually be motivating.  For more behind why and how this works, you can read The Progress Principle by Teresa Amabile, but in short, employees need to feel a sense of progress and that their efforts matter.  One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to get them to tell you what they’ve done, ideally in writing.  Don’t make it burdensome, and let them have a say in the format.

Meaningful responsibility

Give employees a significant piece of work that they can safely own, and allow them as much autonomy as their experience and skills warrant.  Even small projects can be motivating if the employee feels they can put their own stamp on it, or at a minimum put it on their resume.

Opportunities for learning and growth

Find ways for your employees to build skills that are meaningful to them.  This could mean allowing them to go to classes or conferences, but it could also mean giving them permission to spend a certain amount of time at work completing a self-paced course or reading up on a particular topic.

Challenging work

Too often, the reward for doing great work is to have to keep doing that same thing.  Can you mix things up a bit?  Even just shifting tasks around the team so that people get variety can help.  Even better is if you can give them stretch assignments, as long as the assignments stretch them in the way they actually want to be stretched.

Work relationships and feeling part of a team

Provide opportunities for the team to interact informally.  This could be a quarterly team lunch, a surprise afternoon treat in the break room one day (ideally something messy that they can’t eat at their desks, like donuts or ice cream), or a team happy hour.  Another strategy is to take on a fun project together such as planning the office holiday party, but be careful not to burden already stressed employees.

These are just some starting points to get you thinking.  This is a great topic to discuss with your team, either one-on-one or in a team meeting.  It’s also worth thinking about your own motivation as well and what might improve it.  The more enthused you are about the work, the more meaningful it will be for your employees as well.

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