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How to Motivate Today’s Worker

“How to Motivate Today’s Worker”

Learn how to identify causes of low morale, then apply proven techniques to motivate employees, prepare individual action plans to solve on-the-job problems and improve overall employee behaviors.


Motivation is one of the primary concerns and challenges facing today’s manager. This Business Builder will help you learn techniques for creating a proper motivational climate. You will learn how to apply proven techniques for motivating employees, prepare individual action plans to solve on-the-job problems, and identify causes of low morale and techniques for improving overall employee behaviors.


Why Do You Need to Know About Motivation?

  • Your employees are the key to your successful business.
  • Motivation affects employee performance, which affects organizational objectives.
  • Satisfied employees lead to satisfied customers.
  • Motivated employees make your job easier.

Criteria for Success

To be a successful manager/motivator you must first understand that you cannot motivate anyone. You can only create an environment that encourages and promotes the employee’s self motivation. Someone once said that motivation is getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it. The challenge is to give them a reason to want to do it; doing it will satisfy a need they have. You have to tune in to their need, not yours.

Secondly, you must also know what kind of behavior you want the employee to demonstrate. In other words, what do you want the employee to do differently?

For example, do you want the employee to come to work on time? Greet the customers in a friendly manner? Complete forms correctly? Assume more responsibility? You must be clear about your expectations before you can communicate them to your employees.

The third important thing to keep in mind is that you are the critical component in the motivation process. Your actions set the tone. Many managers embrace the "carrot-on-the-stick" approach to motivating employees. These practices take the form of incentive programs, promises of rewards and bonuses. Others employ the symbolic "whip" or "club" by emphasizing the negative results of their behavior.

For example, a manager might say, "If you don’t start getting to work on time, you’ll be fired" or "You’ll never get ahead if you continue to make these kinds of mistakes." The problem is that these short-term "quick fixes" create no permanent behavior change.

Do you really encourage people and bring out the best in them, or do you manage them through intimidation and threats? What motivation methods have you tried? Did they work? If so, for how long?

Watch Out For… There is no quick fix. Changing employee behavior takes time and patience. You will find that what works well for one person may not work for another. You may have to use "trial and error" until you identify and match the right method to the appropriate people.

You also may have to face the unpleasant truth that no matter what you do, you might have some employees who refuse to change their behavior. If that is the case, you will have to "bite the bullet" and ask them to leave. It’s demotivating to all employees when some do not perform according to agreed upon expectations.


Motivation entails five objectives:

  • Understanding the Concept of Motivation
  • Assessing Your Approach to Employee Motivation
  • Identifying the Manager’s Role in Motivation Process
  • Applying Motivational Techniques (Creating the Environment)
  • Measuring Success

Understanding Motivation

Can you motivate someone? The answer is an emphatic "NO!" Motivation comes from within the individual prompting an action. Motivation is a function of individual will. We do things because the outcome is appealing and serves as an incentive.

People are motivated by unmet needs, and those needs differ from individual to individual. People’s needs are determined by their unique set of circumstances, their value and belief systems, family background, education, work experience and individual personality styles.

Motivation is directly related to morale, that is, the attitude of individuals and groups toward their work, environment, management and organization as a whole.

Assessing Your Approach

You may find yourself puzzled by an employee’s apparent lack of motivation. You pay a decent salary so you can’t understand why this person isn’t grateful just to have a job. The first step to real understanding is to accept that what motivates you may or may not motivate your employees.

Take a moment and rank the following motivating factors according to what is important to you:

___ Job security

___ Adequate compensation

___ Company benefits

___ Pleasant physical working environment

___ Recognition for doing a good job

___ Loyalty and fairness of management

___ Participation in decisions that affect me

___ Interesting and challenging work

___ Opportunities for promotion and growth

___ Friendliness of people I work with

___ Clear understanding of what is expected of me

___ Feeling of personal accomplishment

Now go back over the list and identify the order you think your employees would choose.

___ Job security

___ Adequate compensation

___ Company benefits

___ Pleasant physical working environment

___ Recognition for doing a good job

___ Loyalty and fairness of management

___ Participation in decisions that affect me

___ Interesting and challenging work

___ Opportunities for promotion and growth

___ Friendliness of people I work with

___ Clear understanding of what is expected of me

___ Feeling of personal accomplishment

Studies show that managers are often totally wrong in predicting how their employees would rank the list. What’s the impact? Simply put, if managers misinterpret what is important to their employees, they will choose methods of motivation that are entirely off base.

For example, a manager may believe that all employees are motivated primarily by money. So the manager gives everyone a bonus. Much to his or her surprise, employee performance does not improve. What the manager does not realize is that there may be other factors that are more important to the employees.

So how do you find out what motivates your employees? Well, you could ask them to complete the above assessment as a start, although you may not get accurate data. The best way is to talk to your employees and really listen to them. They will let you know indirectly or sometimes even directly what’s important to them.

For example, if you have an employee who frequently asks you, "How am I doing?" or "Did you like the way I handled that situation?" That’s a good indication that particular employee wants and needs recognition.

Identifying the Manager’s Role

At this point, you might be asking yourself, "What is my role as a leader in the motivation process?" Your responsibility in motivating employees is to create the environment that promotes motivation within the individual. Someone once said that good leadership is getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it. Therefore, you must first understand employees’ needs and then show them the benefits of moving from where they are to where you want them to be. In other words, point out the

W.I.I.F.T. — What’s In It For Them.

Times have changed and so have employees. Things that worked 10 or 15 years ago are not appropriate for today’s employees. In order to be effective in creating a positive motivational climate, we need to take a look at what characterizes today’s employees.

The following points are characteristic of contemporary employees:

  • They see compensation as a consequence of performance and, therefore, expect to be rewarded accordingly.
  • They are concerned with organizational recognition.
  • They want to participate in decisions that affect them.
  • They value communication with management.
  • They tend to have a short-term goal orientation.
  • They want work to be challenging, interesting and creative.
  • They desire developmental opportunities.
  • They tend to place their priorities first with leisure, then family, and finally work.

Take a moment and think about the implication of these characteristics on the workplace and your responsibility to motivate.

Research shows that employee motivation falls into two categories: maintainers and motivators. Maintainers are factors that must be kept at a satisfactory level and include the following:

  • working conditions
  • company policies
  • job security
  • pay and benefits
  • relationships
  • supervision
  • status

True motivators are factors that create an inner desire to work by satisfying certain needs that are important to the individual such as…

  • achievement
  • recognition
  • the job itself
  • responsibility
  • advancement
  • growth

Take a moment to analyze your organization based on the above two categories:

Applying Techniques

If you want to become an effective leader, use the following techniques to create an environment in which people want to work:

Use appropriate methods of reinforcement. Rewards should be tied directly to performance. If you have determined that delivering quality service is important, then the employee’s performance in delivering that service should be rewarded.

For example, the employee who "goes the extra mile" by personally delivering an item to a customer who is ill and cannot get to your place of business should be acknowledged and rewarded accordingly.

Keep in mind, however, that reinforcement is personal. What reinforces one person’s behavior may not reinforce another’s. It is also important to dispense reinforcement as soon as possible after the desired performance.

Think of a recent incident when one of your employees went above and beyond the call of duty. Did you reward the employee? If not, what could you have done to reinforce the behavior you want repeated?

Provide people with flexibility and choice. Whenever possible, give employees a chance to make decisions — particularly when the decisions affect them in some way. Choice and the personal commitment that results are essential to motivation. People who are not given the opportunity to choose for themselves tend to become passive and lethargic.

For example, if you are thinking of remodeling or redesigning the employee work area, give the employees the guidelines or parameters, then allow them to design the area themselves.

With what decisions can you involve your employees or allow them to make themselves?

Provide support when it is needed. One key characteristic of the achievement-oriented person is the willingness to use help when it is needed. Employees should be encouraged to ask for support and assistance; otherwise, they will become frustrated. Asking for help should never be considered a sign of weakness; it should be considered a sign of strength. When an employee comes to you for help, be careful not to turn him or her off with comments such as "You still don’t know how to do that? I thought I explained it to you." Instead, ask, "Tell me where you are having problems. What can I clear up for you?"

Encourage employees to set their own goals and objectives. Let them participate actively in the goal-setting process. People tend to know their own capabilities and limitations. Also, personal goal-setting results in a commitment to goal accomplishment. In setting sales goals, for example, ask your sales person to come up with a realistic monthly goal and a plan to reach that number.

Then the two of you should sit down and evaluate the goal by applying the following criteria:

  • Is the goal specific? Write the goal so that anyone would be able to identify exactly what you are going to accomplish. Is it measurable? Identify the deliverable.
  • Is it agreed upon? All those involved must agree. In most cases, this means the manager and the employee who make it happen.
  • Is it realistic? Make sure that you have the appropriate resources (time, skills, equipment, environment, money) to successfully meet the goal.
  • Is it timebound? Set deadlines, interim reviews and target completion dates.

Think of an employee you would like to involve in the goal-setting process. Then outline how you are going to approach him or her. What will you say to communicate the reasons you are asking the employee to set his or her own goals? Are there any guidelines or parameters he or she should consider?

Demonstrate to employees how their tasks relate to personal and organizational goals. Routine work can result in passivity and boredom unless employees are aware of how the routine tasks contribute to their own development and the success of the organization. Point out how their task fits into the big picture. A few extra minutes can increase productivity tremendously.

Think about a task one of your employees does routinely. Outline a plan to explain how this task ties into organizational goals.

Design tasks and environments to be consistent with the employee’s needs. What may satisfy one person may not satisfy another. The observant manager is aware of the more basic needs of the employee such as affiliation, approval and achievement.

Refer back to the list of motivators. Choose two employees and try to determine what motivates each of them. Then identify what you can do to meet each person’s individual need.

Clarify your expectations and make sure that employees understand them. Regardless of the size of your organization, you should have a job description for every position, clearly outlining qualifications and responsibilities. Also identify the expected standards of performance.

For example, if you expect the telephone to be answered within three rings, say so. Employees are not mind readers. You cannot assume that just because they have experience in doing the job, they know what you specifically expect of them in that position.

Select a position in your organization and write a job description for it. If you already have written job descriptions, choose one and review it to make sure it is clear and includes specific standards of performance.

Have a flexible management style. Many managers pride themselves on treating everyone the same. This misconception can be dangerous. Employees are individuals with individual needs. You need to treat everyone fairly but not necessarily the same. A flexible management style also means that you vary your approach not only to the individual but also to the situation. An employee who is new to the job will need more direction than a five-year veteran. However, if the veteran employee is given a new task or responsibility, that person may need more direction in that particular situation.

How would you characterize your management style? Do you use the same approach in every situation? Think about situations or people that would require you to modify your style.

Provide immediate and relevant feedback that will help employees improve their performance in the future. Feedback is most effective when it follows performance. Feedback should be relevant to the task and should indicate to employees how they might improve their performance at the task. Never give negative feedback without providing informational feedback. Keep in mind that feedback should be both positive and negative. Employees often complain that the only time they receive feedback is when they do something wrong. Practice catching people doing something right and tell them about it. The feedback also must be specific. Just telling someone that they’re doing a good job and "keep up the good work" is of no help. It is much more effective and meaningful to say something like, "John, I liked the way you handled that difficult customer. You showed a great deal of restraint and professionalism by not raising your voice or losing control."

Identify a recent event in which the employee did something outstanding. What, if anything, did you say about the employee’s performance? Would you say it differently now?

Recognize and help eliminate barriers to individual achievement. Many people that are labeled "failures" or "incompetents" are simply being hindered by relatively minor obstacles that managers have not recognized. The tragedy is that after a while, the employee may begin to accept the failure label as a fact. Does the employee have the knowledge and skills to do the job? If not, it’s your job to provide him or her with the necessary training. Does the person have the appropriate tools or technology? If not, get it. Make sure people have the training, information, tools and equipment to do the job.

Identify an employee who does not seem to be as motivated as you would like. Ask yourself if there is a barrier that perhaps you have not previously considered. Then plan how you might check out your theory.

Exhibit confidence in employees. There is a great deal of research to support the contention that people who are expected to achieve will do so more frequently than others. Saying to the employee, "I know this new procedure may be uncomfortable and may be even difficult for you at first, but I know you will be able to make the adjustment" is more effective than "Give it a try. If you can’t get the hang of it, we’ll have to see what we can do." The latter statement has conveyed the subtle message that you expect the person to fail.

The concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy or Pygmalion effect is very powerful. Managers who are positive Pygmalion’s create high performance expectations. They encourage employees to ask more questions. They allow more time to do a job correctly, and they give employees the benefit of the doubt.

Identify ways in which you demonstrate confidence in your employees.

Establish a climate of trust and open communication. Productivity is highest in organizations that encourage openness and trust. Trust and openness are created by the way we communicate. Do you use phrases that build people and get things started or ones that destroy ideas and chloroform creative thinking? Review the following lists. Which do you use more frequently?

  • Killer phrases
    • "A great idea, but…"
    • "It won’t work."
    • "We don’t have the time."
    • "It’s not in the budget."
    • "We’ve tried that before."
    • "All right in theory, but can you put it in practice?"
    • "You haven’t considered…"
    • "We have too many projects now."
    • "What you’re really saying is…"
    • "Let’s put it on the back burner."
    • "Let’s discuss it at some other time."
  • Igniter phrases
    • "That would be interesting to try."
    • "I’m glad you brought that up."
    • "Good work!"
    • "You’re on the right track."
    • "That’s the first time I’ve had anyone think of that."
    • "I have faith in you."
    • "I appreciate what you’ve done."
    • "See, you can do it!"
    • "Go ahead, try it."
    • "I never thought of that."
    • "I’m very pleased with what you’ve done."
    • "We can always depend on you."
    • "We can do a lot with that idea."

Can you think of others to add to either list? If you find yourself using any of the "killer phrases," reword the phrase to be more encouraging and positive. Be careful not to give mixed messages. People receive mixed messages when the verbal and nonverbal actions are not communicating the same message. The manager who says, "I’m listening" and continues to look through papers on his desk is communicating that he really isn’t interested in what the employee has to say.

Listen to and deal effectively with employee complaints. It is important to handle problems and complaints before they get blown out of proportion. In addition, people feel more significant when their complaints are taken seriously. Conversely, nothing hurts as much as when others view a personally significant problem as unimportant. By telling someone, "It’s no big deal" or "You shouldn’t feel that way" devalues the individual. You may not think it’s important, but it is to the employee. Acknowledge the complaint and its validity then solicit the employee’s input in resolving it.

Think about a recent employee complaint that you regarded as trivial. How did you respond to the employee? Is there anything you should have done or said differently?

Point out improvement in performance, no matter how small. This is particularly important when employees are beginning work on new tasks. In getting employees to improve performance, frequent encouragement can be useful; however, it should be reduced as the employee becomes more confident and proficient.

Identify an employee whose performance needs to be improved. How you are going to communicate the desired change? How you are going to monitor the performance? What you are going to say to offer encouragement?

Demonstrate your own motivation through behavior and attitude. Nothing turns people off faster than a manager who doesn’t practice what he or she preaches. Be a role model. If you expect people to be on time, then you must make sure you are on time, too. If you expect employees to treat customers with courtesy and respect, you should treat the employees the same way. If you expect employees to get additional training to upgrade their knowledge and skills, you should be attending workshops and seminars to fine-tune your management skills as well.

Think about any areas where you might not be modeling the appropriate behavior. What can you do differently?

Criticize behavior, not people. A person can do a task poorly and still be a valuable employee. Always remember to respect the individual. Too many people are inappropriately labeled "dumb," "incompetent" or "unqualified." Be sure to address behavior not attitude. Managers often have difficulty distinguishing between attitude and behavior.

For example, the following statement: "Janet does not take her work seriously." Is that an attitude or behavior statement? The answer is attitude. An attitude is a conclusion that identifies a feeling or emotion about an observed situation. A behavior, on the other hand, is something that can be observed. To state the above example in terms of behavior, you might write, "Janet’s reports contain errors that require rewriting. She misses deadlines that affect the timeliness of our quarterly statements."

How might you rewrite the following statements?

Leslie is incompetent.  
Vince is sloppy in his work.  
Tom shows lack of interest in his job.  
Joan is rude to customers.  

Measuring Success

In order to measure your success, you must start with your own action plan. After reading through this Business Builder, select two or three ideas you would like to adopt, then respond to the following:

Three things I plan to do differently as a result of this Business Builder:  
Obstacles/roadblocks I might face along the way and how I will overcome them:  
I will know I have succeeded in becoming a more effective manager and motivator of people when…  


___ What is motivation?

___ How are today’s employees different?

___ What is the difference between a maintainer and a motivator?

___ What are examples of maintainers?

___ What are some examples of motivators?

___ What is the difference between a behavior and an attitude?

___ How should rewards be determined?

___ What should you keep in mind about making decisions that affect employees?

___ How can you provide support to employees?

___ What are the criteria for goal-setting?

___ How can you tie routine tasks to organizational goals?

___ What are some different techniques you can use to motivate others?

___ Do you have written job descriptions?

___ Does each job have standards of performance?

___ Does each employee know exactly what is expected of him or her?

___ Which individuals need to be managed differently?

___ How often do you provide positive feedback?

___ Do all your employees have the appropriate knowledge, skills, tools and equipment to do their jobs?

___ How do you communicate to your employees that you have confidence in them?

___ Which do you use more frequently — killer phrases or igniter phrases?

___ How do you deal with employee complaints?

___ Do you reinforce small successes?

___ Are you a positive role model?

___ Do you make sure you criticize behavior, not people?



Bringing Out the Best in People: How to Apply the Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement by Aubrey Daniels. (McGraw-Hill, 2000).

Peak Performance: Aligning the Hearts and Minds of Your Employees by Jon R. Katzenbach. (Harvard Business School, 2000).

Motivating Employees by Anne Bruce and James S. Pepitone. (McGraw-Hill, 1999).

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Motivating People by Michael Ramundo and Susan Shelly. (Alpha Books, 2000).

Supermotivation: A Blueprint for Energizing Your Organization from Top to Bottom by Dean R. Spitzer. (AMACOM, 1995).

Getting Commitment at Work — A Guide for Managers and Employees by Michael C. Thomans and S. Thomas Tempe. (Commitment Press, 1990). How to develop a good relationship in the first few months of employment.


How to Influence Motivation. CRM Films.

Writer: Karen Lawson

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