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How Managers Can Motivate Employees

A little gratitude and a lot of trust go a long way.

A silhouette of a person reaching for a star.

​A sizable paycheck and generous benefits matter to employees. But recognition and appreciation are what really make people happy and engaged at work, surveys show.

“We hear from many bosses who believe that the only truly meaningful expression of gratitude they can offer people is padding their wallets with raises and bonuses,” says Adrian Gostick, co-author of Leading with Gratitude: Eight Leadership Practices for Extraordinary Business Results (Harper Business, 2020). “It’s vital to pay people appropriately, but there’s only so much money to go around. That makes gratitude all the more meaningful and useful as a leadership tool.”

Only 1 in 3 people feel they were well-recognized the last time they went the extra mile at work, according to the Tinypulse 2019 Employee Engagement Report. A mere 25 percent of the workers surveyed said they felt as though their employers consistently valued their hard work—a drop of 16 percentage points from the previous year. About 33 percent said they felt undervalued.

Showing gratitude isn’t always easy. It can make managers nearly as uncomfortable to praise employees as to criticize them, Gostick says. 

An Attitude of Gratitude

Verbal praise doesn’t have to be elaborate; it just needs to be specific. Paul White, co-author of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People (Northfield Publishing, 2012), offers three tips for praising employees:

  • Always use the person’s name. 
  • Include details about the notable behavior or action. Spell out why it was important to you or the company.
  • Deliver the praise in a timely fashion (no later than the next day).  

Of course, every employee is different, so managers should consider the individual when deciding how to show appreciation. Some employees are motivated by the opportunity to take on new, challenging work, a sign that their manager trusts and relies on them, says Chester Elton, co-author with Gostick of Leading with Gratitude. Meanwhile, more socially oriented employees might appreciate a lunch outing with their co-workers to celebrate a win. 

It’s also good to back up your words with gestures. If possible, reward employees by giving them more flexibility in their schedules or by putting them on the path to a promotion. And don’t forget to praise employees for their personal attributes, too. 

“We have to remember that employees are people first,” White says. “If we only treat them as work units, they will feel devalued. You can say, ‘Thank you for your good sense of humor. It really helped keep the team going during a stressful week.’ ”

Guide Their Purpose

Employees who think their work has purpose are more engaged, and engaged employees stay at companies longer, are more productive and are 21 percent more profitable, according to Gallup’s 2018 Employee Engagement Report. 

And yet, 70 percent of employees are not engaged at work. One way to help them find their purpose is to connect their work with the company’s larger mission. White points to something his father did as the head of a manufacturing business. He would regularly take front-line workers onto the production floor to see the finished product so they could witness how their piece of the puzzle fit into the larger picture.

“Sometimes we have to find a purpose and meaning in the process,” White says. “Do you have a sense that you’re moving toward a goal, or does what you’re doing feel random?”

For employees to feel their work matters, it’s helpful for them to be a part of the goal-setting process, says Julie Zhuo, author of The Making of a Manager: What to Do When Everyone Looks to You (Portfolio, 2019). Zhuo likes to create a Venn diagram using three points of information: the employee’s aspirations, the employee’s strengths and the benefits to the company.  

“The intersection of what [employees] aspire to do, [what they] are good at and [what] would benefit the organization is where you start matching the employee to impactful initiatives that they are well-suited for,” Zhuo says. “I then look at the cross section of ‘aspiration’ and ‘impact’ that doesn’t include ‘strengths,’ because that’s where we can start the conversation about areas for growth.” 

Find a Happy Medium

Managers must carefully monitor the amount of attention and direction they give employees. Micromanagement is a motivation killer. On the flip side, not paying enough attention to employees can be demotivating, too.

“If you do your job day in and day out, and you never hear anything about it, you’ll start to question the value of what you’re doing,” White says. 

In a post-coronavirus world, maintaining communication will be especially crucial, as more employees are now working remotely. 

It’s easier for virtual employees to get lost in the shuffle. To prevent that, make sure remote employees are invited to meetings, get all company communications and aren’t left out of discussions that impact their roles, White says. Teams can stay connected through video calls, virtual team lunches and instant messaging.

Elton recommends that businesses encourage their managers to block out time in their days solely for employee interaction and allot resources for management training and development, which often fall by the wayside in tough times like many companies are facing now. 

“These are actually the times when leaders need the most support,” he says. “In the best organizations, leaders spend a considerable amount of time on their personal development. Organizations play a vital role in providing the tools and training to help managers with soft skills that are so necessary during challenging economic times.”  

Jennifer Thomas is a freelance writer in Chicago. 
Illustration by Michael Morgenstern.

3 Simple Ways to Boost Employee Motivation

1. Celebrate small wins. Adrian Gostick, co-author of Leading with Gratitude: Eight Leadership Practices for Extraordinary Business Results, points to a way to celebrate small wins that former Ford Motor Co. chief executive officer Alan Mulally used when he first took on the job. “At the time, Ford was expected to lose $17 billion,” he says. “Mulally asked each member on his team to present a color-coded update of progress toward key goals. On-track projects were green, yellow meant the initiative had issues, and red meant the program was behind schedule. Every time the project progressed from red to yellow and yellow to green, each step forward was celebrated. It showed the team that it was expected to make progress.”

2. Host a “radio hour.” Anne Morriss, author of Unleashed: The Unapologetic Leader’s Guide to Empowering Everyone Around You (Harvard Business Review Press, 2020), likes to do an exercise she calls “radio hour,” in which employees interview each other one-on-one and then share the most interesting thing they learned about that person with the whole team. “It’s an exercise that forces everyone to practice empathy and creates space for people to bring their whole selves to work,” she says.

3. Amp up the autonomy. One of the things that employees value most is freedom, Morriss says. So any policy that restricts that must be “truly necessary for the functioning and well-being of the organization,” she says. Morriss encourages companies to think about ways to increase autonomy instead. “For example, are you a company that really needs to track vacation days, or will the honor system work?”



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