Motivation is the lifeblood of your organization. Without it, your employees will stop after they complete the bare minimum of what is expected of them, and your turnover rate will continue to grow.

In order to motivate your team, you have to understand what causes them to lose their drive and disengage in the first place. Here’s what makes your team tick, and how you can create an environment they respond to.

Culture Motivates Employees, and Employees Motivate Culture

Culture is often treated with a top-down approach. The founders and powers-that-be decide what cultural values the company should embody, and then decree that all others in the organization should follow their guidelines.

However, defining what you want your culture to be doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what your culture is.

“Everyone talks about company culture, but most have it backwards,” writes Steve Tobak, author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow. “Culture isn’t something you set out to create, but something you don’t know you’ve created until after the fact. Culture is a way to document that unique combination of factors that somehow came together and, against all odds, actually achieved what the company set out to do.”

One of the easiest ways to demotivate employees is to develop a “do what I say, not what I do” approach to culture — which puts the onus on management to be thoughtful about both what they say and what they do.

“Nothing speaks more loudly about the culture of an organization than the leader’s behavior, which influences employee action and has the potential to drive their results,” David Grossman writes. “If you say teamwork is important, reinforce the point by collaborating across teams and functions. Give credit when people do great work and you’ll set the stage for an appreciative culture.”

Every company has a culture guided by principles, but it’s the actions of employees and managers that determine whether those principles become toxic.

A Pat on the Back Goes a Long Way

So, what should be included in your company culture? Start by creating an environment of recognition to make your employees feel valued.

“It’s easy to underestimate the power of a pat on the back, especially with top performers who are intrinsically motivated,” Dr. Travis Bradberry writes at LinkedIn. “Everyone likes kudos, none more so than those who work hard and give their all. Rewarding individual accomplishments shows that you’re paying attention. Managers need to communicate with their people to find out what makes them feel good and then to reward them for a job well done.”

Even self-motivated remote employees need a pat of the back on occasion, and a few kind words can motivate employees better than other physical incentives.  

In one study, employees were offered multiple incentives: a cash bonus, free pizza, or a compliment from the boss. While pizza certainly performed well, the biggest motivator was getting a pat on the back.

“I never encourage flattery — or praise that you don’t really mean,” Justin Bariso writes at Inc. “But everyone deserves praise for something; as a leader, it’s your job to figure out what. To look for the good, to see the potential, and to bring out the best in them. Your employees will value that a heckuva lot more than pizza.”


Encourage Employees to Work for a Higher Cause

Of course, you don’t have to choose between pizza and kind words to motivate employees. You simply have to create a sense of purpose and big picture for them to work toward.

“No matter what your organization does — whether it’s offering a service or building products — it is important that your culture be infused with meaning,” Emma Seppälä, Ph.D. writes at the Harvard Business Review. “Studies show that people who have a sense of purpose are more focused, creative, and resilient, so leaders should make a point of reminding employees how their work is improving people’s lives.”  

What does this mean for companies that aren’t nonprofits or don’t create products that save the world? Your “higher purpose” can come in many different forms:

What Causes Does Your Company Support?

If your company isn’t actually saving the whales or curing cancer, how is it helping those who do?

Do you have a nonprofit client that helps rescue dogs? Does your team participate in a local charity run each year? That matters to your employees, especially the younger ones.

“When millennials are considering applying for a job, their top priority is what the company actually sells, produces, or distributes,” Ryan Scott, CEO of Causecast, writes at Forbes. “But beyond compensation and benefits, what matters most to them is the company’s work culture, involvement with causes, office environment, and attention to diversity and HR standards.”

It’s possible to create a culture of purpose through corporate initiatives, even if it’s simply collecting cans for the food bank.

What Are Your Company’s Goals and Plans for Growth?

Another way to motivate your employees through a cause is to get them on board with the company’s plans in the next few months and years.

“According to one survey, only 40% of the workforce knew about their company’s goals, strategies and tactics,” Ashley Stahl writes at Forbes. “Bringing your team into the fold and exposing them to the bigger picture of what you are trying to accomplish — and WHY you’re trying to accomplish it — is the most powerful way to motivate them.”

No one wants to feel like they’re a cog and aren’t high enough on the ladder to ask questions. Further, creating a culture of openness will enable employees to trust you if you do need them to do something without explanation.

Why Should Your Employees Take Pride in Their Environment?

Are there cupcakes in the breakroom to celebrate employee birthdays? Do you have a question wall to get to know your team on a personal level?

“Create an attractive workplace that gives employees a sense of pride,” Jane Wesman writes at Entrepreneur. “I’ve found that painting office walls bright colors, instead of boring gray or beige, increases energy levels. Buying attractive furniture, whether it’s from IKEA or a top designer, gives employees a sense of pride. They tend to keep their workspaces neater and thus find it easier to be productive.”

Small steps to improve the environment can set the standards for how employees treat their office spaces — and their jobs.


Prove That You’re Invested In Your Team

To some, the idea of sprucing up an office area might seem superficial, especially when managers are trying to boost employee morale and motivation. However, there’s a deeper purpose to these minor adjustments.

And there’s a classic study from the early 20th Century that demonstrates why.

That study broke employees into two groups: A control group, and a group whose environment began to change (think improved lighting or a more comfortable office layout). Those incremental changes translated into sustained productivity.

“Every case found that the level of productivity increased whenever there was a change in the work conditions,” Pratik Dholakiya writes. “The increased productivity remained elevated even when the conditions returned back to normal. The researchers eventually deduced that the increase in productivity was not attributable to the changes in the physical conditions, but to the fact that attention was being paid to them, and employees felt that someone was genuinely concerned about their working conditions.”

Replacing a tattered and broken chair proves that you’re watching for your employees and care about their comfort. Similarly, investing in them professionally proves that you care about their future careers — especially within the company.

“If you expect your employees to stay at your company for the long haul, you need to have plans in place for their growth and advancement,” Formstack CEO Chris Byers writes. “Very few people will be content to stay in the exact same position for years on end. You want to hold on to employees who are interested in contributing to the forward movement of your company.”

From the management’s perspective, this means treating your employees like individuals and finding ways that grow based on their skills.

“I’d recommend conducting a skills assessment before deciding on what training you’re going to organise for each employee,” Marc Burrage at Hays Recruiting Experts writes.

“The employee will better appreciate, and be more motivated by, a sensible and well-considered plan of training for them. You need not worry if your business/department has no budget for learning and development — many don’t — there should be plenty of free and relevant networking events and conferences your employees can attend; you just need to look around.”

Understand the Meaning and Value of Trust

Often, employee motivation comes from within, especially when they’re placed in an environment with high levels of trust from all parties.

“Companies deemed by employees to have both strong character and inspired trust performed almost four times better than those that had other positive cultural attributes, such as collaboration and celebrating others,” Jennifer Reingold writes at Fortune. “What’s more, ‘high trust’ organizations were 11 times as likely to be called more innovative than their competitors.”

When managers trust their employees to make wise decisions, employees feel better about taking risks, which can have bigger payoffs in the long run.  

“Most people think distrust is the opposite of trust, but it’s not — the opposite of trust is control,” Randy Conley writes at the Leading With Trust Blog. “Leaders who compulsively try to maintain control erode their team members’ sense of autonomy [and] squash their sense of motivation. It’s human nature to desire independence and to feel in control of our lives. That desire doesn’t stop at the office door.”

If everything they do is going to be questions and criticized, why should your employees try to grow and improve the company?


Work-Life Balance Contributes to the Culture of Trust

A high level of trust also contributes to a company’s work-life culture. When employees aren’t insecure about their performance, they’re able to make decisions that benefit their health and their motivation to perform their best.

“When employees feel a greater sense of control and ownership over their own lives, they tend to have better relationships with management and are able to leave work issues at work and home issues at home,” the team at Pingboard writes.

“Balanced employees tend to feel more motivated and less stressed out at work, which thereby increases company productivity and reduces the number of conflicts among co-workers and management.”

Frankly, sometimes employees just need to get out of the office for a while.

“The normal work environment has limitations, even if micromanagement is eliminated,” Soma co-founder Mike Del Ponte writes. “Anytime an employee needs to check out and recalibrate, they’re free to work from home or their favorite coffee shop. Giving autonomy to employees not only produces higher productivity, it also reminds everyone that they are their own bosses and we trust their judgment to decide what will make them work most efficiently.”

The work-life balance is often viewed as a company perk, but it’s actually part of the culture. When managers trust their employees to get their work done in a timely manner, employees treat themselves better and are healthier for it.

“Keeping a reasonable balance will mean employees are less susceptible to burning out at work — the feeling of being overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands of a workplace,” Ruby Lowe writes for The Undercover Recruiter. “Keeping a healthy work-life balance has even been proven to improve your health and wellbeing. Taking time out for yourself can limit health problems and let you lead a more productive lifestyle in general.”

Employee motivation doesn’t come in the form of free food, unlimited vacation days, and high pay. It comes from your company’s culture of trust, growth, and transparency. These are items that can’t be added to a benefits package, and need to be constantly developed within your organization to encourage employees to stay.


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