Keeping Employees Motivated at Work

The "carrot and stick" approach to employee motivation is outdated. Motivation involves internal and external factors — learn how to encourage both.

Every employer wants motivated employees, but the traditional “carrot and stick” approach is outdated and misguided. Instead of focusing solely on compensation and the threat of job loss, employers should foster internal motivation by investing in your employees’ future, wellbeing, and personal development. 

Internal vs. External Motivation 

Many employers incorrectly think that job satisfaction alone leads to motivation, but studies suggest that while dissatisfied employees are rarely motivated, people can be happy with their jobs without also being properly motivated. When an employee is pleased with their work environment, compensation, and other external factors, they are less likely to leave their job. However, an employee who performs their job solely for compensation or job security is unlikely to be a top performer. They are simply there for a paycheck and aren’t looking for ways to build or improve the company.

Employees who are internally motivated make a deeper impact. They are driven by personal, intrinsic factors, such as a desire to learn, meet personal goals, or improve their workplace. These employees find meaning in their work, relish the challenges of their jobs, want to grow their knowledge, and increase productivity. Ideally, you want intrinsically motivated people on your team because they are more interested in growing the company than their bank account.

How to Foster Motivation at Work

It’s relatively easy to extrinsically motivate your employees by offering fair compensation, high-quality benefits, and bonus programs. Fostering their internal motivation is a more complicated and delicate proposition. However, it is possible — especially when your management team takes time to reflect on your workplace institutions and culture. Employer-employee dynamics are just like any interpersonal relationship: they require attention and care from both sides.

Provide Meaningful Work

Many employees, especially Millennial and Gen Z employees, want to find meaning in their careers. Some jobs, such as those in healthcare, social work, and education might have clearly articulated purposes (heal, teach, guide), but other jobs might seem mundane and unfulfilling. 

As part of your workplace culture, explain each position’s purpose and value, regardless of whether it’s a high-level managerial role or an entry-level job. Recognize that every team member serves a vital purpose and that each team member is necessary to your team’s success. 

It’s also important to encourage open communication between employees and management. Does an employee have a passion that he or she wants to pursue within your company? How can you channel your employees’ talents and internal goals to give them purpose and motivation at work? Are there opportunities for increased training, mentoring, or growth that you are missing out on?

Clearly Express Goals

Successfully delivering a project or completing a task is a satisfying feeling. However, employees who don’t have well-defined goals and objectives can quickly become unmotivated. They might try their best to meet the company’s expectations, but if the metrics or deliverables are constantly in flux, it’s impossible to succeed. 

Prevent employee burnout by:

  • Explaining each employee’s job responsibilities
  • Instituting a clear chain of command
  • Setting reasonable project expectations
  • Identifying employees’ growth potential
  • Keeping open communication

Setting (and sticking to) well-defined goals helps your employees’ productivity and drive.

In addition to clearly defining tasks and expectations, devote time and resources toward your employees’ job development. When you invest in your human capital, you are reinforcing your commitment to your employees. This might involve constructive feedback, mentoring, and training and education.  

Recognize Your Employees’ Success

Most employees want some level of recognition. Unlike financial compensation, gratitude is relatively inexpensive. Think critically about the last time you truly showed appreciation for your employees’ hard work. How did you express your gratitude? How did your employees respond? Do your employees appreciate each other?

A culture of gratitude will help build both job satisfaction and motivation. Recognition has an external aspect: some employees crave public recognition, increased compensation, and promotions. However, the emotional impact of a “thank you” is also important. When you recognize employees’ contributions, you foster a sense of belonging that can increase their level of engagement.

Value Employee Wellness

Healthy employees are more likely to be engaged and motivated at work. A robust employee wellness program might reduce absenteeism and increase productivity. When an employee is ill, they either are out of the office, or worse, infecting employees while delivering limited productivity.  

Additionally, employee wellness programs can boost morale and motivation. When you offer robust health benefits and encourage workplace health, you’re confirming that you value your employees. You should prioritize workplace safety, encourage preventive care (such as vaccinations), and assess the quality of your health insurance options.

Compensation Is Still Important 

While compensation might not intrinsically motivate your employees to work harder or better, it still plays an important role. If you opt to pay low salaries and offer poor quality benefits, employees might feel unappreciated or undervalued — especially if your workplace doesn’t have a culture of gratitude and teamwork. 

Compensation is the number one reason employees leave their jobs and involves more than just an employee’s hourly wages or salary. Financial compensation also includes paid time off, bonuses, health insurance, life insurance, and other benefits. If you haven’t assessed your salary structure or benefits packages recently, it’s probably time to do an audit. Unemployment in California is relatively low, and many employers are increasing wages and benefits to attract top talent. If you don’t offer reasonable compensation, your employees might start looking elsewhere.