Six Ways to Drive Employee Performance and Motivation

Since the industrial revolution and the theories of Fredrick Taylor, employers have tried countless ways to improve employee performance and drive motivation and moral. Company environments differ significantly. And as I discussed in Under New Management, The nature of knowledge work has rendered much of Taylorism inadequate. Some organizations are driving employees through fierce competition while others strive to ensure a congenial, team-based atmosphere. No one can claim with total assurance that they’ve found a method for driving performance that works consistently.

Motivating your employees is a delicate and purposeful challenge that requires more than an annual review or jotting a few notes in someone’s personnel file. Just like getting in shape or learning a new language, bolstering the motivation and performance levels of your employees won’t happen overnight.  Here are six ways you can improve performance and motivation in your workplace.

1. Make Expectations Clear

Employees without goals will be naturally aimless. Provide them with clear achievable goals and make sure there are measurable standards in place to evaluate their performance. Victor Vroom’s work on expectancy theory supports the concept that employees must know what action they are expected to take and that it will yield the desired performance. Your employees should understand what they are expected to do, how they are expected to do it, and how they will be judged on it.

2. Provide Continuous Feedback

Immediate, continuous feedback lets an employee know that their actions affect the company. It’s hard for you, and the employee, to remember specific incidents when employee performance review time rolls around. Goal-setting theory predicts (quite obviously) that employees are motivated by setting goals and by receiving continuous feedback on where they stand relative to those goals. More recent research shows just how motivating it can be when employees know they are making progress.

Always be specific in your feedback. For example, instead of telling an employee he, “did a great job,” compliment him on the way he organized his presentation, the citations he used, or his public speaking style. He’ll be more likely to apply these strengths to his next project if you point them out specifically.

3. Correct Privately; Praise Publicly

Most people are not motivated by negative feedback, especially if they feel it’s embarrassing. The only acceptable place to discuss an ongoing, performance-related issue or correcting a recent, specific error is in the employee’s office or your own, with the door closed.

On the flip side, announce publicly when one of your employees made a particularly outstanding presentation, sale, or other notable achievement. Tie an incentive to accolades, such as a bonus or a gift certificate. Praising your employees in front of others helps motivate their continued stellar performance. (One note here: some people who love being praised would still prefer private communication, so ask first before you shine a spotlight on your people.)

4. Believe in Your Employees

Whether you tell him so during an employee performance review, or in the breakroom, an employee whose boss constantly calls him worthless, or a screw-up will feel a lot of emotions. He will not, however, feel particularly motivated to improve his performance.

Present weakness or errors in the context of, “I know you can do better. You’re smart and capable…and that’s why I expect more from you.” The perception of leaders’ trust is a key component of transformational leadership.

Encourage your leadership team to take this same approach when you’re trying to motivate your employees for a major event, “This is the most talented, hardest working group I’ve ever had, and that’s why I know you can win this sales competition.”

5. Make Rewards Achievable

Everyone is familiar with the annual bonus trip awarded to the top-performing employee. The problem is, such rewards usually go to one or two employees. This leaves the rest of your staff feeling like there’s not much point in working hard because the same few people always reap the rewards. Remember the other end of Vroom’s expectancy equation, which offers that individuals must also see the desired performance and linked reward as possible.

Set up a series of smaller rewards throughout the year to motivate ongoing performance excellence. For example, instead of an annual trip, award several three-day getaways for each quarter. Vary the basis for the awards. Top sales might be one category, but so can top research or most diligent. Recognize that several types of excellence motivate your employees to focus on additional areas of their performance.

6. Let People Know What They’re Fighting For

The first five recommendations all work, but they work best when the work is clear. When it’s unclear how your team will achieve the objectives asked of them, then the most reliable motivating force is purpose. And the way to test whether your team has a clear purpose is whether or not they can answer the question “what are we fighting for?” You don’t need to use fight rhetoric in your communication, but you do need to let your people know on a regular basis the difference they’re making in the organization and the difference the organization is making in the world.

People don’t want to join a company; they want to join a crusade. And reminding them of the importance of that fight will keep them motivated even when how to win is still unknown.




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12 Responses to “Six Ways to Drive Employee Performance and Motivation”

  1. Tom Nixon says:

    I really like the continuous feedback, praise and belief, but number 6 is old fashioned carrot-and-stick. Even if you break rewards into smaller chunks, it’s still a case of ‘If you do X then you will get Y.’ This is one of the most common attempts at motivation, but studies have shown that not only do ‘if-then’ rewards hinder performance (because the reward creates a distraction from the actual work) but it can also reduce motivation because by dangling a carrot, you change the perception of the work into something that must be done to get the reward, and in the process destroy the intrinsic motivation in the work itself. Also, people will often work to the reward and not excel and go further.

    Carrots are popular because they work for very simple tasks (like peeling potatoes faster) and can also get short-term results for ‘higher’ types of work, but they can damage performance and motivation over the long-term. This may manifest itself in high employee turnover, or just mediocre results.

    It’s better to motivate by: 1) giving more autonomy to people; 2) giving them an opportunity to continually work towards mastery of their craft; and 3) having a worthwhile higher purpose to all of the work, beyond just making money.

    I really recommend the book ‘Drive’ by Dan H. Pink which goes into this in a lot more detail and cites the various studies which back it up.

    • david says:

      Thanks for the comment Tom. I’ve read Dan’s work, and the work of Deci, Ryan and Amabile that Pink discusses in Drive. (Dan and Teresa were both guests on our podcast). Pink’s argument in Drive is actually that “if-then” motivators still work in routine tasks, where exactly what you’re supposed to do is spelled out. Within creative or knowledge work, research leans to traditional incentives having a negative effect. More recently, however, Amabile has summarized the research on creativity and incentives and argued that extrinsic motivators can yield a positive effect if they are in line with intrinsics ones and are seen more as recognition and less as an attempt to manipulate.

      I think that’s where you and I are in total agreement: manipulation. I’ve seen too many executives and middle managers try to use incentives like bribery to get good performance out of unmotivated knowledge workers. That’s a recipe for disaster.

      • Tom Nixon says:

        Interesting, thanks for the reply. I get the idea about rewards being better if they are after the event recognition rather than ‘if/then’ carrots – I believe Dan Pink covers this in Drive, but he says this is still trumped by focussing on autonomy, mastery and purpose. I would like to learn more about aligning extrinsic and intrinsic motivators. Do you know of any examples of this?

        • david says:

          The easiest examples I can think of are things like innovation prizes…the X-Prize or the Netflix prize. The task needed to win the prize (space flight in the case of X) is usually something the team’s pursuing it are intrinsically motivated to do, yet the prize itself enhances that motivation and serves as recognition of the person’s creative talent. Albeit, this is a hard tactic to reproduce inside a company, although the Netflix prize was set up to benefit a specific company.

          • Tom Nixon says:

            Yes I can see how there’s something in this. I’m thinking about Evan Williams who joined Google when they bought Blogger.com, then left again to set up a new venture which eventually spawned Twitter. I remember reading an interview with Williams a while back where he said that Twitter could never have been created at Google. Something definitely wrong there from Google’s point of view. I guess he had far more autonomy and chance of reward by leaving and innovating elsewhere. Wonder if/how Google could keep someone like that within the company, motivated and innovating.

          • david says:

            Williams and Twitter is an interesting story. Didn’t twitter start after ODEO flopped and the company scrambled to find a new product? I wonder how that factors into the entire motivation thing. I can say, it likely came from complete autonomy. (Hard to convince people not to do autonomous work when there isn’t a main product to work on anymore).

  2. Kent Julian says:

    Great words, David. It’s so true, motivation is that strong force that moves employees forward, helps them excel, and causes them to be at their best. Thanks for sharing such solid thoughts on how to positively enhance the performance of team members!

  3. Ada says:

    Good article David. If I were to condense all your ideas into one word, it would be positivity! When leaders and companies create a positive culture, all your points will be present and motivation will be high. Employment engagement is both a result of high motivation and a motivator. When employees are more involved in the creation of everything (including extrinsic and intrinsic motivators), performance increases.

    We need to keep remembering that no one formula works for everybody. People ARE different, and what motivates them also varies.

    Thanks again for a thought provoking article.

    • david says:

      Good summary. Leaders set the tone for the organization and that tone is much better when its positive. Thanks Ada.

  4. These are six useful spokes to a leader’s powerful vision. With a common, motivating sense of purpose in place, these corollaries can help take everyone’s performance to the next level.