In 30 years of managing employees, I’ve tried just about every motivational trick in the book. Some of the ideas I had the greatest faith in turned out to be very ineffective. Other ideas that I originally spurned were extremely powerful.
Overall, here’s what I’ve observed: Mugs, T-shirts, inspirational posters, etc.: A total waste of time. If anything, they make the company that provides them (and the people who use them) look puerile.
Pep rallies: A stupid waste of money. Yes, they can be fun. But providing employees with a good time is not the same thing as motivating them. I’m not against business-sponsored fun so long as you don’t delude yourself into thinking you are doing something you’re not. Corporate pep rallies are tax-deductible distractions.
Inspirational speeches: This is a tricky one. If the person who gives the speech is respected and if his remarks are heartfelt, a speech can be greatly motivating. The key is sincerity. If you think you can bullshit your employees into action, you will be disappointed. Political speeches get political results — i.e., nods and passive aggression.
Financial incentives: Another tricky subject. For many years, I gave out monetary incentives like penny candy. In some cases, this technique worked well. But most of the time, it failed. Studies show and my experience confirms that money is not the primary motivating factor for most people.
Furthermore, incentive-based compensation is unsettling to most workers. As a general rule, I favor paying employees a good salary (a little bit more than they could get elsewhere) supplemented by small but helpful discretionary bonuses (given by their immediate supervisors).
Creating a vision: This is essential. The vision itself needn’t be crystal-clear — but it does need to be appealing.
Communicating that vision: It’s not enough to have an idea in your head. Put it in the heads (and hearts) of the people who work for you. The more effectively you can communicate your vision, the more likely it is that it will be achieved.
Setting high standards: Necessary but sometimes difficult. Don’t compromise your standards. Find a way to help your employees achieve them.
Empowering your people: A big “yes.” The more power you give away, the more power you’ll have. Leaders who want to control things end up with less control, less productivity, and employees who tend to be dissatisfied with their jobs. Surround yourself with good people, give them goals and standards, and then get out of their way. (And try to avoid using the word “empower” — and forgive me for using it.)
Assigning responsibility: Another big “yes.” When you give an employee the power to be in charge of something, give him the responsibility to do it properly. To the right employee, responsibility feels like a benefit. If you have someone working for you who feels differently — who wants as little responsibility as possible — start looking for a replacement.
Providing feedback: Definitely. Let your employees know what you like — as well as what you don’t like — about the work they’re doing. Find ways to comment on their progress as often as possible.
Establishing momentum: One of the most important jobs of a leader is to give everyone on the team the sense that things are moving forward. Scan the above list and you will notice a correlation between how effective the motivator is and how much work you have to put into it.
The easiest ones — buying mugs and posters — are generally the least effective. The hard work of communicating your vision, establishing and reinforcing goals, and providing specific, personal feedback will give the best long-term results.