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Motivating Staff without Money

August 2002, HR MagazineMotivating staff without money

Here are four ways to motivate staff when there's not much in the kitty

As a supervisor, it always will be your toughest job to turn around people who have lost the motivation to make a positive contribution to the team.

But, contrary to popular perception, your job as a manager is not to motivate your staff. Motivation is internal. Instead, you are responsible for creating an environment in which people can motivate themselves. And this can be done without relying on merit increases, incentives and bonuses.

That is an important concept to understand because few companies have had opportunities to promote people internally; many have withheld equity adjustments and even annual merit pool increases because the bottom line has been squeezed so tightly. In this climate, it is important for managers to focus on the top non-monetary motivating factors: open communication, recognition, career development plan and the ability to make a difference at work. Here are simple ways to hit all four factors and create an environment where employees​ motivate themselves:

Open Communication

More companies adhere to the philosophy of minimal communication rather than “open book” management. In other words, senior management often assumes that the less employees know, the better.

Even if your senior management adheres to this closed communication style, practice open book management with your own staff. Whenever possible, research your organization on an Internet search engine such as Or send a member of your team to the library to find information in the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, Who’s Who in Finance and Industry or Ward’s Business Directory. In essence, you’ll have a chance to research your firm as well as your competitors, and little does more to stimulate interest and competition than pointing employees to the right tools to educate themselves (and the rest of your staff). Knowledge is power, and the Internet and library make for free resources of invaluable information.

Staff Meeting Leadership

Nothing says confidence and trust like putting someone in a position of leadership with the ability to make decisions. Maybe it’s time to shift that responsibility for leadership away from yourself and toward your employees. One way to do this is to allow each of your employees to run a weekly staff meeting—its structure, delineation of responsibilities to others and follow-up. Placing future leaders into management development roles is probably the most important benefit that you have to offer your people. Besides, it’s much easier to complain than it is to fix the problem. People responsible for attempting to fix problems are less likely to blindly blame others because they’re more sensitive to the challenges involved in rendering a solution.

In addition, keep an eye out for other ways to give your employees more responsibility to test their leadership skills. Respect and recognition are two proven ways to retain employees—and you don’t have to spend a dime.

External Training Workshops

Assume that many of your best employees are resume-builders. They will stay long enough to prove their worth so long as they’re on the fast track. Once they feel blocked from upward mobility, however, they will look elsewhere. The key is to allow all your employees a chance to reach their career goals at your organization. People are much more inclined to feel like they’re making a positive contribution to your organization if they’re in a learning curve. So even if you can’t promote them because of hiring freezes, you could indeed challenge them to challenge themselves.

Training organizations like the American Management Association/Padgett-Thompson offer one- and two-day offsite workshops as well as onsite seminars on everything from business writing to team building to supervision for first-time supervisors. The cost is minimal: one-day workshops begin around $169, and, because prices are so low, the real issue becomes the opportunity cost of having your employees out of the office for a day.

Many other training organizations offer hundreds of situation-specific seminars via e-learning, self-study courses like finance for non-financial managers, foreign language acquisition and software certification. Two or three seminars per employee per year may add very little to your overhead budget and allow employees a one-day “sabbatical” to reflect on their careers as well as to reinvent themselves in light of your company’s changing needs.

Finally, remember that there are tax advantages for funding employee development programs like these. Many states offer employment training panel funds that will allow your company to tap monies set aside for employee development via payroll taxes. Such training panels look to return those monies back to participating companies to encourage the re-training and re-tooling of U.S. workers. Contact your local unemployment office for more information. After all, discovering how to send your employees to outside training and then getting reimbursed for those workshops could make you a hero to your superiors and subordinates alike.

Self-Evaluation Tools

Finally, remember that people want to learn, contribute and make a difference at work. They will do this better if they feel a direct connection with a company that benefits their own careers. Have your employees take stock of how they think they are affecting the business. It’s a chance for your workers to give themselves an intermittent report card so that you can both compare notes.

You might structure a written self-evaluation form in three parts:

  • Past. What have you done over the past year to increase revenues, decrease expenses or save time? Why is our company a better place for your having worked here? How would you grade yourself in the areas of timeliness, reliability, customer satisfaction and responsibility?

  • Present. What do you need from me, as your supervisor, to provide you with more structure, direction and feedback to help you develop the skills that you feel are critical to your success and the success of the organization?

  • Future. What are your performance goals over the next year, and what will be the measurable outcomes so that you can demonstrate that you’ve reached those goals? What do you see as the next logical move in career progression at our firm, and how long would you expect it to take to get there?

It’s a simple exercise, but until you know what’s important to your people, you can’t manage effectively. And you won’t know unless you ask. If you could build a program at no cost or at a low cost to turn your people back on, then kudos to you. In today’s business environment of scarce resources, payroll​ increases or promotional opportunities, you’ll have provided your staff with key elements of any retention program. Then when the employment marketplace opens up again, you will have a staff accustomed to an environment that encourages and fosters individual growth and institutional learning.

In the end, you will have done your company a great service and will have made your life a whole lot easier when the job market opens up again. They say that people join companies and leave supervisors, and that’s really true.

Paul Falcone is director of employment and development at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, Calif. He is the author of four books published by AMACOM, including The Hiring and Firing Question and Answer Book (2001), 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems: A Guide to Progressive Discipline and Termination (1999) and 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire (1997). This article represents the views of the author solely as an individual and not in any other capacity.


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