Art and Science of Motivating Employees

Ann All

Last month I interviewed Brad Hall, Ph.D, managing director of Human Capital Systems and author of "The New Human Capital Strategy" about how to motivate employees. First, he expressed his opinion of typical employee performance management, especially annual performance reviews. Hall finds them woefully ineffective, and he's not alone in that negative assessment of performance reviews.


Then he provided what sounded like a disarmingly simple solution: Provide employees with specific goals, then reward them for meeting them.


It sounds like a no-brainer, but Hall told me many companies get sidetracked by promoting such vague goals as "being a better leader" or "improving communications skills." Instead, companies should tie employees' goals, training programs and incentives to specific roles. He mentioned one of his clients, a bank in Peru, as an example:


One of the jobs is bank branch manager. There are five things the managers have to do. So when the regional manager comes, they train on those five things. The performance appraisal is on the five things, the merit bonus is on the five things. What happens in so many companies today, they create a program promoting something like "primal leadership." To what end? What's wrong with making branch managers better branch managers?


I thought it was great advice. That said, there are myriad ways of motivating employees, and companies may find they need to supplement this strategy with others. Eric Mosley, CEO of Globoforce, offered some great suggestions on motivating employees in a recent Forbes column.


His first tip is especially relevant during the kinds of tumultuous times many companies are experiencing now, as they struggle to recover from layoffs and other drastic cost-cutting measures instituted as the economy spiraled downward earlier this year. Mosley says offering rewards keyed to corporate values can help improve overall company morale.


He mentions Symantec, which began rewarding employees for performance that reflected the company's core values, including "innovation" and "action," following a 2005 merger that doubled its employee rolls from 6,300 to 15,000. Employees got e-mail thank-you notes, sometimes accompanied by gift cards worth $25 to $300. Within six months, Symantec's employees were earning 800 rewards a week, and employee engagement levels rose strongly during the program. Supplementing Hall's "specific goals" strategy in situations like this seems to make good sense.


Mosley's other tips:

  • Find out what really motivates your employees. Surprise, it may not always be money. He writes: "A year-end cash bonus doesn't give an immediate sense of gratification for a job done today, and it may not address what's on an employee's mind today. It also is ineffective in fueling long-term motivation. Giving freedom to choose a meaningful reward is often a better idea." Hall is in agreement. He told me: "That's another assumption that doesn't make sense, that if you don't pay people to do something, they won't do it." So how can you find out what will really motivate your employees? Ask them.
  • Short-term incentive programs are great for helping employees hit specific targets or deadlines.
  • Make sure recognition programs aren't just limited to star performers.
  • Appoint a strong communications team to relay information about incentive programs and why the company is doing them.
  • Establish milestones, and measure and track the impact of incentives.
  • Regularly gather feedback from employees to find out how they feel about incentive programs.

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