Motivating Others in Tough Times

Given the circumstances many businesses and organizations find themselves in during this tough economy, I expect they’re struggling with the question of how to motivate employees.  I bet they’re wondering how they can not only keep people focused but, more importantly, how can they retain the talent with dwindling financial resources (not to mention that many ‘cool’ projects are on-hold because of the tough economic situation).

Frankly, it’s easy.  And no matter what you believe, it doesn’t cost much.

Take a look at the following list and pick the one thing that is most mentioned as the key motivator for employees:

  1. money

  2. extra time off, with pay

  3.  the best benefit plan—health, dental, 401K, stock plan, etc.

  4. clear understanding of their role and objectives

  5. oak plaques, crystal sculptures, and trophies

  6. nice office architecture, design, and workplace

If you chose #4, you’re right.

This shouldn’t be a surprise because the answer has been virtually the same for more than 65 years.  Whether you believe Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (in his 1943 article “A Theory of Human Motivation”), Frederick Herzberg’s Motivator-Hygiene Theory (in his 1959 book The Motivation to Work), or the recent work of Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman in their 1999 best-seller First Break All the Rules.  In their book, based on extensive research on employee satisfaction and motivation conducted for over 25 years by Gallup, they find there are 12 factors that motivate (listed in order of importance):

  1. Clear performance expectations.

  2. Materials and equipment to do the work right.

  3. pportunities to do best work.

  4. In the last 7 days, I have received recognition for good work.

  5. Someone at work seems to care about me as a person.

  6. There is someone at work who encourages my development.

  7. In last 6 months—someone has talked to me about my progress.

  8. My opinions count.

  9. The company mission makes me feel my work is important.

  10. Co-workers committed to quality work.

  11. A best friend at work.

  12. Opportunities to grow and learn.

And when you add the recent information from Rick Tate and Dr. Julie White in their book People Leave Managers…Not Organizations!, you can’t deny that the factors that motivate and inspire people are clearly related to strong leadership, exemplary management, and processes to support productivity. If you’re still not convinced, honestly answer these questions:

  • “When was the last time I was really excited about work?  So excited I told everyone how wonderful work was.”

  • “When was the last time I hated my job?  I was miserable.”

If you’re like most, your answers will confirm what we’ve known about motivation for over 65 years. 

Bottom line, it’s the work assignments, strong leadership, total work environment, and simple recognition that motivates people.

That said, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there are times in one’s life—back to my broke college student days—where money did ‘motivate’ me to stay in a job.  Surely there are times in all of our lives where we work just to survive.  But we don’t thrive in those jobs.  I think it’s just a combination of reality and practicality. 

So what are the lessons from all this?  Actually I think this is quite appropriate and timely to these tough times we face today.  Leaders should:

  • set clear goals and provide ongoing feedback

  • recognize people simply yet sincerely for a job well-done (a thank-you goes a long way)

  • build a work environment that encourages creativity, involvement, and development

The smart leaders will do these three things.  Others will just look to bonuses, big offices, incentive trips, and crystal sculptures to reward and motivate people.  Keep an eye out for these managers—their people might be looking for a job soon. 

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