Companies & Industries

Keeping Your People Pumped


Beyond the obvious incentives: Four smart ways to light a fire

In our business, the biggest challenge we have today is motivating our people. What's the best way to do that? -- Vijay Naik, Gaborone, Botswana

Besides money, you mean? We assume you do, because as a boss, you surely have seen how effective money is in lighting a motivational fire -- even in employees who claim money doesn't matter to them. Indeed, money's power to energize people is so tried and true we won't dwell on it. Nor will we talk about two other no-brainers: interesting work and enjoyable co-workers. You already know how effective they are in getting people to invest heart and soul in their jobs.

So what else can you do? Plenty. Here are four more motivational tools -- all nonmonetary and each effective.

The first is easy: recognition. When an individual or a team does something notable, make a big deal of it. Announce it publicly, talk about it at every opportunity. Hand out awards.

When we suggest that to business groups, almost inevitably someone expresses concern about the people not being recognized: They might be hurt or de-motivated. This nonsense indulges the wrong crowd! If you have the right people -- competitive, upbeat, team players -- public recognition only raises the bar for everyone.

One more note on recognition, in particular when it's in the form of engraved doodads: They can never be given in lieu of money. They are an addendum. Plaques gather dust. Checks can be cashed. And employees know the difference in their bones.

The second tool, celebration, should be easy but isn't. We often ask audiences if they think their companies celebrate success enough, and typically no more than 10% of the crowd says yes. What a lost opportunity. Celebrating victories along the way is an amazingly effective way to keep people engaged on the whole journey. And we're not talking about celebrating just the big wins. We mean marking milestones such as an important order or a new way to increase productivity. Such small successes are chances to congratulate the team and boost spirits for the challenges ahead.

Celebrations don't need to be fancy. They're really just another form of recognition, but with more fun involved. Like rolling out a surprise keg one afternoon, tickets to a ball game, or sending a couple of high performers and their families to Disney World (DIS). Whatever turns their crank.

Which brings us to what celebration is not. It's not dinner with you. Almost nothing strikes terror into the hearts of employees more than a boss saying: "Great job! I'm taking everyone to Mama Maria's tonight." Look, your people spend all day with you, and while they may like you, it's not motivating to be rewarded with a forced march to an eatery, no matter how great the meatballs.

The next motivational tool is really powerful, but it can only be used if you're absolutely clear about your mission. Now, you may be thinking: "Aren't all bosses clear about the mission?" Alas, too often they're not. In the course of our travels, we've discovered that many leaders are so busy with the daily grind that their missions fall by the wayside.

To move forward, a team has to understand and buy into where it's going. It needs a collective sense of purpose. And that's exactly what a great mission gives you, a bold, inspirational creed. A mission allows bosses to say: "There's the hill, let's take it together." Now, that's motivation.

The final motivational tool is probably the most difficult to implement. Yes, many great leaders have it, but for the less seasoned, it's hard to get just right. We're talking about balancing achievement and challenge. People are motivated when they feel as if they are at the top of the mountain and as if they are still climbing it. Simply put, bosses who create jobs with just the right push-and-pull have a real competitive advantage.

Now, back to money.

Of course, some people aren't moved by financial rewards, but they rarely gravitate toward business. That's why when you think about motivation, you need to think about money first. It's not always how much you give people, though. Sometimes it's how much you give them relative to their peers. We recently asked an investment banker we know well how his year went. While he was pleased with his bonus, he was just as excited by how it measured up to the other top rainmakers in his firm. Money is a way of keeping score.

That said, even investment bankers -- at least, some of them -- care about more than money. In fact, very few good people will stay in a job just for the payback. They also need to feel that they matter and that what they do for eight hours a day or more means something. You can fulfill those needs with open appreciation, a sense of fun, an exciting shared goal, and individual attention to the challenge of each job. It's a tall order for any boss, but the returns are incalculable.

Jack and Suzy Welch look forward to your questions. You can e-mail them and view their new website at www.welchway.com For their podcast, go to www.businessweek.com/search/podcasting.htm.

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