Motivating employees

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With uncertain times ahead, businesses need to think smarter to retain talent

But it’s a slippery slope – where do you draw the line with increasing remuneration, rewards, and perks? Certainly, these need to be covered at a baseline, but beyond this, how can you engage talent to stay?

More importantly, how do you motivate employees to add that elusive discretionary effort without breaking the bank?

The challenge at hand:

In the US, onlyone in threeworkers strongly agrees that they receive recognition or praise for doing good work in the week beforeMost employeesfeel it’s not uncommon that their best efforts are routinely ignoredEmployees who do not feel adequately recognised are twice as likelyto say they’ll quit in the next year


71%of highly engaged employees work in organisations in which their peers are recognised monthly or more frequentlyOrganisations in which senior leaders set goals and recognise their achievement are on average 9 timesmore likely to have strong business results

Employee experience is what sets your organisation from its competitors as an employer. A key tool in motivating employees is a recognition programme. Unlike rewards for employees (by which we mean awards, bonuses and incentive schemes), recognition programmes don’t necessarily need a lot of investment to be effective.

Here we take a look at why recognition programmes will always trump reward for engaging and motivating employees.

1. Belonging is more important than esteem

Taking a look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (yes, that old chestnut), it’s clear that people care more and need to feel like they belong, less so than they need grandiose affirmations of esteem. In other words, a peer-to-peer recognition scheme that fosters collaboration will go much further than offering rewards that put someone on a pedestal (and encourage competitiveness while doing so). It’s far more impactful to receive meaningful and authentic thanks often from colleagues than to be held up as an example by a manager as winner of a prize, above your co-workers. Recognition strengthens bonds between colleagues and builds team spirit by increasing belonging.

2. Money doesn’t work in the long run

Daniel Pink said it best: “The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table.” If you are a skilled worker, it’s just as easy to look elsewhere for a bit more money. Which means in Pink’s world, that makes your employee experience the deal breaker.

‘Carrots and sticks’ can work for a short time, but start to lose their effect when they become the norm. Likewise, ‘if/then’ rewards tend to prompt a short term surge in motivation but actually dampen it over the long term. Just the fact of offering a reward for some form of effort sends the message that the work is… work.

Wouldn’t it be nicer if we all just wanted to come to work because we enjoy the people and the challenge? Unexpected and genuine words of appreciation never lose their appeal as a motivational tool.

3. Value is in the eye of the beholder

When it comes to rewards (and awards for that matter), there’s both the actual value and perceived value to contend with.

As an HR professional you may spend months looking for the right reward or incentive scheme, spend your entire budget and have very little uptake. You might offer discounted movie tickets through your rewards system but if there’s no cinema nearby Jo Bloggs’ house, it’s unlikely that’ll have much value for Jo. and if Jo doesn’t utilise it, it’s worth nothing. The perceived value is the value an employee sees in receiving the reward.

When it comes to awards, in a surprising number of cases, the perceived and actual value of a recognition award are miles apart. There’s a balance to be struck between meaningful and affordable: of course you don’t want to look cheap, but if the winner of the iPad already has one… it’s unlikely to be very meaningful. For that matter, if it's not effectively expressing recognition for an employee's contributions to an organisation, keeping them on staff, or motivating them, what can you actually do with an ‘Employee of the Month’ certificate?

It’s a minefield out there, so it’s a lot safer to rely on what your employees do share: Your organisation’s purpose, values and agreed behaviours. Where awards are top down, publicly sharing peer to peer recognition means more to the employee, breaks down workplace silos, and encourages the same behaviour in others, furthering your organisational agenda.

4. Not everyone is a high achiever

Let’s face it - not everyone is a high achiever. Though one-winner awards may work with competitive employees, it can demotivate those who don’t think they stand a chance of winning.

That said, there’s that person who always pitches in at the last minute, the consistently-positive colleague and that one person who dropped everything to help you fix the IT for a presentation. What about them?

Praising only the final outcome of a process it not enough. Keep the bigger picture in mind and see everything that went into a project or task. A good recognition programme will acknowledge everyone’s contributions and sing the praises of the efforts, rather than achievements.

5. Recognition should be all for one and one for all

Since school we’ve all been familiar with the concept of a ‘teacher’s pet’. Likewise, there are always those employees who are nominated again and again for the same awards.

So many good things are happening at your organisation, but managers aren’t going to see it all, and don’t often have the time to recognise them in the moment when they do. Enabling everyone to recognise anyone breaks down department and hierarchy walls and speaks to the small and big happenings that make up a workplace’s culture.

If employee recognition is kept just between a manager and employee, others miss out on that benefit. As it turns out, people who recognise others the most are often the most recognised themselves.

When it comes to recognition programmes, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution, which is where an objective viewpoint can help. By uncovering what makes your employees tick, you can apply consistent principles to recognition that works.

Top tips for recognition

Don’t wait – Recognition and feedback have the greatest impact when given without delay. Be specific – People respond better when they know exactly what your feedback refers to. Light a spark – Whenever you communicate or give feedback to someone, do so in a positive, constructive way. Make it count – Make your recognition relevant and authentic. Walk the talk – Remember that actions speak louder than words.