Employee Motivation – What Works and What Might Get You Killed

Motivating employees  is like building fireworks; if you do it right, everyone will be happy, properly entertained, and you will make a profit; if you do it wrong, it can very easily kill you.

The only reason I am writing this is because I wanted to bring a different perspective to the issue. I am not and have not been a heavy hitting manager with 1000+ people under my control, but what I have been is a  person on both sides of the coin; bottom, top, and bottom again.

There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about employee motivation that people believe and practice everyday. Some of these have originated from partial truth, because they live in such a gray area that it’s hard to distinguish between truth and fiction. The other thing that continues these poor practices is the fact that it is what we have been told our entire lives. For example, did you know bats are not blind? In fact, they have fairly normal eyesight for the animal kingdom. I found that out the other day and felt like an idiot. I’ve seen and even held bats up close and it is obvious that they have fairly normal eyes in their heads, but if you had asked me what animal is most commonly associated with being blind, I would have answered bat all day. The problem with that scenario is that being “blind as a bat” has been so deeply ingrained into our psyche that we believe it even if it is obviously not true.

There are several of these same scenarios that play themselves out each day in our offices, stores, and warehouses across the globe. As I said in the beginning, the value I bring is one from the perspective of a person that has been on both sides of the motivation machine; I was looking up, then looking down, and now back up again and this is how I see it.

Myths and Misconceptions

1. Fear

This one dates back to the dawn of man.

“If my employees suck, I will yell at them and then they improve.”

No…. I can’t even express how wrong that statement is other than I award you no points and may God have mercy on your soul. Seriously though, fear is a terrible motivator. If you think fear works well, you are either in one of two positions; you think the performance it brings is the highest achievable (IE. you have low expectations) or you employ a group of masochists. Period.

Using fear as a motivator is like using gun power as charcoal fuel; sure it will burn like crazy, but only for a second. All that said, if you yell at your employees more than once a year, reevaluate your method and/or punch yourself in the face.

2. Money

Wait a second, money is a great motivator!

That is almost true, money can be a great motivation tool if used correctly, but many times it is throw out above the crowd and the same highest hands catch it every time. The reason money is a poor motivator is because most of the time it works directly against proper job placement and structure and even more so because it is directly related to the #1 motivation myth, fear. Money rewards everyone the same way for doing the same thing and that is retarded. Just because Tommy doesn’t bring the company $1mil revenue a year doesn’t mean he is worth less than the guy who does. Does Tommy treat his clients honestly and fairly? How many complaints have you had about Tommy compared to the people in the top 5%? The thing about rewarding people with money is that if you are going to do it, you need to be dynamic with your distribution.

3. Conflict

Don’t ignore conflict.

If people in your organization are fighting, take initiative to step in and stop it. There are few things more damaging than letting a simple argument expand into something that will divide a team or even an organization. There is no

doubt that being an effective manager means you must walk a fine line between boss and friend, but this is the time to step up and take charge of the situation. Set everyone down and get the entire story, make a decision, act on it, and stick to it. You will have more respect from you employees and your organization will be stronger because of it.

4. Recognition

Recognition, like money can be one of the most effective motivators if executed properly.

The problem with recognition is that, like money, if it is not distributed effectively, then it will do more harm than good. Recognition can quickly turn to alienation if only one aspect of an employees performance is rewarded.


That is bullshit. You shouldn’t “create” awards or recognitions for employees just because they clock in with a pulse, you are wasting everyone’s time. What I am saying is that you should evaluate performance on multiple levels and reward accordingly. If Chuck closes a $500k account, he should not receive any more or less recognition than Tommy who brought an innovation or idea to the table that saved the company $500k.

Be dynamic be be dynamic. I don’t care if you have 2 or 2000 employees, you need to be dynamic across the board. Blanket policies are great and completely necessary, but if you are in a position where you can make a difference in the structure of recognition, you need to do so.

5. You can’t Motivate Everyone

What a hock of crap. Everyone that is in average physical and mental condition is motivated. The problem is that they are not all motivated by the same things.

I once knew a guy who most would consider a giant pile of crap. He spent his days sitting on his bed playing Call of Duty and getting pissed because there were hundreds of 13 year olds across the nation that were better than him at it. I couldn’t help but think to myself that he was a pathetic piece of crap every day that I walked in and saw this same scene. Then it hit me, he is not a piece of crap, he is just motivated by different things than I am. If you could take him and let him manage a CoD forum or put him in a position to further develop the game or communities surrounding it, he could skyrocket.

The main point out of these five issues is that you should not treat every employee the same, because we are all different. The guy who is struggling in the customer service department might be your next CFO or the girl in the mail room who spends half of her day talking to her co-workers could possibly be your top producing salesperson.

Motivators that Work

1. Transparency

There is nothing that people love more than furthering  the collective. In order for people to truly feel like they are doing this though, they have to feel like they are involved in the decision making processes. The best way to do this is to lay it all out on the table. WHAT?!? We can’t tell people what is actually going on, they will blab it all over or gossip or they might actually know how much money we are making off of them.

Who cares? Let them blab, you can spin it into a marketing/PR move and you’ve already got signatures on a solid non-compete, so let them try to do what you do, your one letter away from putting a stop to any attempt. What you will most likely find is that instead of opening yourself up to an undefinable liability, you will actually give everyone a sense of involvement that will lead to an increase in your bottom line.

Managers tend to have very narrow thinking because they are stuck between the owners and the workers. The owners are always looking at the “big picture” and the workers are always seeing the little problems. The key to success here is to bring everyone together and get them on the same page. If you can do this, you will keep all parties active in the process and motivated to bring ideas to the table.

2.  Education

Education is a motivator because it gives employees tools to improve what they do. Amazing innovation and performance comes from people who are given proper tools to capitalize on opportunities that present themselves.

I’m not saying that every employee should be given free tuition for a 4 year degree, but I am saying that every employee should be up to date with the current technologies and atmospheres of their given occupation. I have seen and continue to see people who continue to grind their flour with two rocks when they could be providing 100 times the output with another device. If that same person had only been given the education that was needed to look up and realize that they could do the same thing in a tenth of the time and half the cost with only a little innovation, then they could focus on something much greater.

3. Accountability

This one is huge. If someone messes up they should be accountable for it no matter who they are or what they have done.

Accountability equals fairness and fairness equals happy and prosperous employees. There are few things that motivate workers like seeing a “high ranking” and “seasoned” employee with the same title as them reprimanded for something they did wrong. It not only brings everyone to the same plane, it legitimizes the entire process.

Letting worker A slide on an issue because he produces 30% more than worker B is a slippery slope that will end in disaster. However, if worker A is properly punished for his or her actions, then worker B will improve on two levels; they will further understand that they must legitimize their actions no matter the situation and by bringing worker A back down to the same level as worker B, you will remove the alienation factor that worker B might be feeling for their lower production.

4. Placement

Properly positioned employees are motivated employees.

This argument goes back to the thought that you can’t motivate everyone which we have already established as being a myth. Proper job placement can be the biggest motivating factor of them all. If an employee is in a position that truly fits their life, then they will need no outside motivation.

The real key is recognizing the fact that people change and that you can’t always properly place people with two interviews and a resume. If you can recognize that a person has changed or was never meant to be in the position they current reside, then you can not only keep a solid employee long-term, you can turn them into a self-motivated production machine.

5. Expectations*

I added an asterisk to expectations for a very specific reason.

If you do not set realistic expectations, a positive motivator will turn into a negative motivator.

Giving people a realistic benchmark of achievement will not only push them to do better, it will create a healthy sense of self competition in which they push themselves at a target. This one is tricky simply for the fact that it takes fine tuning and is harder to set dynamic goals and not seem as though you are playing favoritism. However, it can and should be done. Make a board or a graph and show realistic goals and make people reach just a touch for them, I think you will be shocked at the positive results. However, pay very close attention to this goal setting, because it can turn quickly. Setting goals that cannot be achieved will end in a small percentage achieving greatness and a large majority shutting down mentally out of frustration.

Long story short: Be dynamic, recognize differences in people and manage accordingly and  you will succeed.

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