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HR Magazine - November 2000: Three Steps to Motivating Employees

HR Magazine,   July 2000Vol. 45, No. 9

Here's how to create an environment that promotes confidence, trust and satisfaction.

When a top-performing em-ployee is promoted to management, sometimes little thought is given to how effectively that new manager can motivate his subordinates. Being able to motivate other people is seen as an innate gift—either you have it or you don’t. But, it can be taught and learned easily through a principle called motivation management that focuses on three conditions: confidence, trust and satisfaction.

The cost of neglecting to develop this skill in managers is high. When high-performing employees have unresolved motivation issues, their performance either declines or they leave for another job. When poor-performing employees are not motivated to improve, they drag results down, reduce productivity among their team members and, worse, seldom leave because they have no place to go.

The bottom line: Managers pay a heavy price when employees have motivation problems.

Motivation Management

The crux of motivation management is to understand that employees are motivated by what they believe is going to happen, not by what managers promise will happen. Managers can motivate employees by setting in motion the three conditions required for motivation—confidence, trust and satisfaction—and by creating an environment that reinforces those conditions.


When employees believe “I can’t do it,” they tend to give up. At best they give only a half-hearted effort. Lack of confidence is a pervasive motivation problem. It happens when performance expectations are unrealistic, workloads are impossibly high and training fails to keep pace with employee needs.

Managers do not realize how serious this problem is. Why? Employees are afraid to tell the boss they “can’t do it.” Many employees fear that if they say they “can’t do” something, the manager will assign the duty to someone else. So, employees go through the motions, giving the appearance that everything is fine. As a result, confidence problems go largely unnoticed. And the guilty party is the corporate culture that does not permit employees to talk openly about confidence problems.

A good manager can recognize when an employee says he can do something but doesn’t mean it. For instance, if the employee responds to an assignment by saying, “If everything goes well, I’ll probably be able to … I guess,” then clearly the employee has a confidence issue. If the employee doesn’t volunteer information, ask questions in a non-threatening way about how he plans to carry out the instructions.

Most importantly, managers can improve motivation by assigning work to employees that they naturally do well and that they enjoy. When employees can do the job well naturally, they know they can perform and there will be no confidence problems.


Employees face a major motivational roadblock when they believe, “Outcomes are not tied to my performance. I will not get what my performance deserves.” This is a trust problem. Trust problems tend to be easier for managers to spot because employees usually are vocal about them. There are two difficulties, however, that managers face.

First, trust problems cannot be corrected quickly. It takes time to build trust. Second, it takes courage for managers to give employees what their performance deserves. It may be easy to reward the high performers, but it is sometimes uncomfortable to withhold rewards when people perform poorly. It is particularly difficult when the poor-performing employee is either an outspoken troublemaker or a loyal, dedicated and hard-working employee.

But giving employees what their performance deserves is important. To do otherwise sends a crippling message to the underperforming employee and his teammates. It is like a parent who tells two children they can have ice cream if they clean their rooms, then lets both have the reward when only one completes the chore. This teaches both children that they do not have to perform to get what they want. Unfortunately, too many employees have learned this lesson, and it is a major cause of motivation and performance problems in the workplace.

Another mistake managers make is to give too much trust. Managers who delegate duties to employees and then never follow up may think they are doing the right thing by giving employees space and independence. But, in fact, they are not reinforcing positive behaviors or correcting negative behaviors. Employees want managers to follow up on assignments to find out what they are doing right and what they could do better. Tying positive outcomes to the employee’s bonus reinforces those behaviors and improves productivity.


It is difficult for employees to put out the effort necessary to get their work done when they realize, “The outcomes offered to me are not satisfying. I’m not getting what I want from my job.” People may believe they can do the job (confidence) and that outcomes will be tied to performance (trust), but they will not be motivated if they believe the outcomes will be dissatisfying. It does not make sense for anyone to work hard for something he doesn’t want.

Many managers fail to take the time to find out what is satisfying and dissatisfying to each employee. When motivating employees, many managers make the mistake of believing and acting as though everyone is motivated in the same way. This simply is not true. What motivates one person may even demotivate another. Challenging work, for example, is motivating to some employees, intimidating to others; some em-ployees prefer the certainty of a fixed routine, while others thrive on task variety.

Managers also cannot assume that each employee will be satisfied if the three “big outcomes”—money, advancement and job security—are fulfilled. Another outcome, such as praise, recognition, openness or honesty, may be more of a motivating factor to some employees.

The solution to this problem is so simple that most managers overlook it: Ask your employees what outcomes motivate them. Employees will gladly tell you what they want from you.

Another interesting point is that when the work itself is satisfying, employees tend to be very forgiving when there is a shortfall in rewards. Why? Because employees are getting something that is highly prized by most people in today’s work environment—enjoyment from their work.

Solutions to Motivation Issues

The biggest barrier managers face when it comes to improving employee motivation is a misconception about their job as a manager. Let’s set the record straight: The manager’s job is not to solve problems but to get problems solved. It is impossible for managers to effectively solve all of the problems in their domain.

Getting problems solved means getting help. This is easy when it comes to motivation. When employees are not motivated correctly, they know what the problems are. And they know solutions that will work for them.

Managers can lead employees to unearth the underlying causes of their problems and suggest their own solutions to improve their motivation. Once managers realize this, they can put the guesswork behind them. The alternative is for managers to continue standing knee deep in solutions, not knowing which way to turn.

Getting to the answers is a two-step process. First, you have to prepare employees to talk—help them feel confident that it is OK to give honest answers and that they won’t get fired or suffer by communicating openly. Second, you must ask employees the right questions to extract the truth.

To prepare people to talk, start off by saying, “I know you’re facing some tough issues. I’d like to help, but I can’t do it alone. I’ll keep whatever you say confidential and will use it only to help you.”

Then, ask the right questions. To ferret out confidence issues, ask:

  • Do you know what is expected?
  • Do you think what’s expected is attainable?
  • Can you do what is being asked of you and can you do it on time?

For trust concerns, ask the employee:

  • Do you know what is being offered for good performance?
  • In your opinion, have we come through on our promises in the past?
  • Do you expect to get what is offered?
  • What do you expect to get if you do a good job?
  • What do you expect to happen if you perform poorly?

Finally, to unearth motivation problems related to satisfaction, ask the employee:

  • What would be satisfying to you?
  • Is the work meaningful to you?
  • Is there anything you don’t want?
  • Do you want the things being offered?
  • Do you want something that is not being offered?

Managers who use this approach will find that it takes the guesswork, false starts and missed opportunities out of the search for solutions to employee motivation problems. It also will demonstrate that being a successful motivation manager is often simply a matter of asking the right questions.

One, Two, Three

The solution to your motivation problems may be as simple as this three-step process called motivation management.

First, help employees develop the confidence needed to get the job done. Second, be sure employees trust you to give them what their performance deserves. Third, make it possible for employees to find satisfaction in their jobs.

When these three conditions are met, employee motivation will soar and so will performance.

Thad Green, Ph.D., is a former professor of management and is now a consultant and author based in Atlanta. His latest book is Motivation Management (Davies-Black, 2000).


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