Motivating Employees

I am often asked what it takes to motivate staff. The answer to this question is often surprising.

First, it is not possible to motivate someone. People must motivate themselves. Motivation comes from within a person, not from the outside. In English this is called intrinsic motivation (内因性動機付け). It is the most powerful kind of motivation.

People are motivated intrinsically in three ways:

  1. Applying their talents and to address a challenge. This is particularly true in the case of knowledge work as opposed to manual labor. People derive satisfaction from doing things are hard. Some managers I know deliberately reduce challenging work for employees,  thinking this keep them from becoming de-motivated. Nothing could be further from the truth. Coddling employees is a motivation killer.
  1. Having autonomy. Having autonomy means being able to decide how to best accomplish the goal of one’s work rather than being told how. The most talented people crave autonomy. Some of my most most successful clients in Japan have no strict requirement of presence and in the office and no fixed work hours. People are required to be present for meetings, but are otherwise free to accomplish the goals of their work as they see fit. Many work from home. The only requirement is to accomplish goals and complete work on time. Some of these companies refer to themselves as “principle-oriented” rather than “process-oriented.”
  1. Being empowered. True empowerment means being able to influence the outcome of one’s work, and being able to see the impact. One of my most successful clients encourages their people take ownership of the innovative ideas with which they come up. The organization deliberately minimizes decision layers in the way. Employees are recognized and rewarded  not only for the success of an innovation, but for the behavior of trying ideas that may ultimately not work.

What about extrinsic motivation like external rewards or coercion?

Recognition and appreciation have a positive effect on motivation, more than monetary rewards and economic security. Simply saying “thank you” or “well done!” to a staff member or employee often engenders greater commitment and loyalty than any monetary reward. Indeed, in Japanese culture, a sincere, public expression of gratitude has even deeper meaning and more profound impact than similar expressions in Western or other Asian cultures.

Contrary to popular belief, money is not a strong motivator of behavior. Once a level of economic security is attained, attempting to change behavior with the promise of bonuses and increased salary rarely works. People who are not intrinsically motivated to do better rarely decide to change behavior when offered more money. People who are motivated to constantly strive to do better, do so whether more money is on offer or not.

In fact, offering monetary rewards to people who are already motivated may have the opposite of the intended effect. There are cases of sales organizations having introduced bonus and commission systems where performance actually dropped. The good sales people became less motivated and committed. The poor sales people remained unmoved. The offer of money effectively “cheapens” good performance to where it becomes a simple economic transaction, and dampens motivation.

Similarly, Japanese-style job security, such as life-time employment (終身雇用制) and lock-step promotion (年功序列制) may attract people to join a company. However, once they are there, life-time employment and lock-step promotion alone never motivate staff to continuously improve performance.

Some Japanese executives are aghast when I suggest removing these systems. “Everyone will quit!” they exclaim.

Really? I doubt it. The poor performers will be too uncertain about finding another job to quit. The good performers will be confident in their ability to keep their jobs or otherwise secure  employment elsewhere. I have never heard of a case of exodus of top performers from companies that drop these systems. I have unfortunately seen many companies that cling to these systems become repositories for the the mediocre and suffer flight of the talented.

Being too protective of labor ultimately reduces a company’s competitiveness.

What about motivating through punishment?

Threats of and carrying out salary reduction, demotion or other ways of instilling fear or coercing people may motivate a change in behavior, but it is always short-lived and low impact. In addition, I have never seen a case of a punished employee improving performance.

The cost is also high. Commitment and loyalty suffer. Punished employees will never go extra mile for the organization. In some cases, they may seek revenge, and try to deliberately damage the organization in unseen ways if they can get away with it.

So what can you do to improve motivation in your business?

  1. Give staff challenging work that will make them to learn and grow. Give people permission to make mistakes and fail, but insist they learn from failures.
  2. Allow people to make best use of their talents. Challenge them to grow.
  3. Give people autonomy, but hold them accountable for results. Accountability is critical to making autonomy work.
  4. Create opportunities for formal recognition of good performance, and encourage managers at all levels to recognize good performance informally as well. Never underestimate the power of saying “Thank you!”
  5. Drop life-time employment and lock-step promotion systems. These are systems that made sense in bygone era. They make no sense today.
  6. Empower people to influence the outcome of their work. Remove minimize decision-making barriers where possible.

These are just a few things that can be done to motivate employees. What do you think that you might do to improve motivation of your staff?