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.
About the author
David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.