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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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Nov 30, 2009 12:52 PM Derek Irvine, Globoforce Derek Irvine, Globoforce  says:

Ann, on behalf of Eric and Globoforce, thank you for the highlight of this information!

Dec 1, 2009 9:34 AM Jon Clemens Jon Clemens  says:

Good post.   I think the idea of rewarding employees based on specific job function is a good one.   Another spin on this is to have goals related to a specific job function but to also tie these to group/team goals and then to company goals as a whole.   Obviously its not possible in every case to have individual goals directly related to company goals but even indirect relationships if spelled out can help motivate employees.   For instance, if the company has a sales goal of increasing sales by 15%, every individual who has either direct or indirect influence on this goal should specify that goal and map it to the company sales goal.  Then if the company goal is achieved, those that helped to reach it by meeting their individual goals (by looking at who mapped to that goal) should be rewarded.    Of course you may also have to reward individuals at some level if they meet their goals, but the company does not.   Providing an employee this visibility into how their day to day effort helps the company achieve its larger aims, and rewarding them when it does - will help keep employees engaged and productive.

Jan 6, 2010 3:16 PM Shelley Holmes Shelley Holmes  says:

Trying to 'motivate' employees is like trying to blow spaghetti up a hill with a straw!

As the article suggests it is about finding what it is that inspires the individual and then creating the conditions that enables him or her to feel inspired to give of their best.

Ultimately most people you work with want to feel that the work that the do is meaningful, that they make a difference and that they have the ability to use their innate talents and strengths. Mix that together with a healthy dose of respect and you have a winning forumla.


Mar 1, 2010 7:38 PM Pablo Edronkin Pablo Edronkin  says:

Motivating people is not something that works mechanically like pushing a button in order to produce an effect; while there is an inevitable formality in the workplace, leaders should never assume that 'motivation' is like a prescription medicine that is to be used in a specific way. A leader should never forget that he or she is leading humans, not office furniture that can be moved around. Mechanical approaches to motivation will never work. If you take the example of great leaders like famous military commanders, you will see that they saw their soldiers not as living weapons or tactical assets but in a way more akin to what we understand as a big family. General Patton or Marshall Rommel were actually loved and respected by the same men they sent to battle and in many cases, to die. You don't get that just by using prescribed incentives.

Nov 24, 2010 6:29 PM Sebas Sebas  says:

Keeping employees engaged in your business can be hard. Keeping employees engaged on arguably the longest, busiest and most stressful day of the retail year, can be nearly impossible. Our Black Friday survival guide gives you a five-step approach to winning the burnout war you'll be fighting this Friday. Read the battle plans:



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