Hiam: What Motivates Employees?

by Shel Horowitz

In two wide-ranging hours of cartoons, sound bites, Alex Hiam—making his second appearance at the Family Business Center—examined low-cost, creative ways managers can motivate employees.

Hiam, author of numerous books, including The Vest-Pocket Ceo: Decision-Making Tools for Executives and Marketing for Dummies, started the evening with a Far Side cartoon. The caption for a sketch of a childcare provider dressed in witch’s garb: “We hired you to babysit and you cooked and ate them both?” This message related to Hiam’s observation that managers tend to “hire on the hard stuff [contents of a résumé] but fire on the soft stuff”—personality traits and the like..

Different companies have varying corporate cultures, and value different traits. For instance, Yahoo looks for the ability to “zoom in and out” of different problems and situations, and a passion for life. Kinko’s values customer service skills, dependability and integrity.

Once you’ve hired, keeping employees motivated means understanding their perceptions. And right now, the report card of corporate America isn’t great: 91% of employees see firms as less loyal to their employees than in the past, 65% don’t think their employers show genuine concern, and 62% don’t trust their employers to keep promises.

Now for the good news: these troubling statistics are an opportunity for managers. Earn the trust and loyalty of your employees, and you will motivate them to perform—even without monetary incentives. In fact, “money issues are a de-motivation” if you’re not paying market rate. Beyond that, “if they’re compensated appropriately, doubling the salary won’t have much impact on performance. Attitudes about the job drive employee behavior, which drives the customer’s experience, which drives revenue.” Strategies include allowing employees latitude and creativity, keeping lines of communication open in a meaningful way, giving feedback in an informative, positively focused manner, and creating an emotional climate that values employees.

Hiam defines motivation as the sum of opportunity to succeed, ability to pursue the opportunity (i.e., the employee’s skill set), and the emotional foundation for desire to succeed—the positive attitude that comes when a task is neither too easy nor too challenging.

Alex Hiam’s latest book is Motivating & Rewarding Employees, is reachable at Alexander Hiam and Associates, Amherst, MA at hiam@javanet.com or (413) 253 3658

A Few Ways to Motivate Employees in 30 Days

Based on Streetwise Motivating, Alexander Hiam, Adams Media, 1999

“Whenever we must accomplish our goals through others, their motivation is our greatest limiting factor.”
– Streetwise Motivating (p. 2)

1. Recognize that motivation really does drive bottom-line performance
Highly motivated employees and organizations with better-performing employees really do perform better. On average, changes in employee attitude drive as much as half of the changes in corporate profitability

Make a commitment to do something about employee motivation every day. This will naturally lead you to treat employee motivation as a core issue, not a peripheral one. You will begin to manage interpersonal relationships, build the emotional’ foundations of motivation, and create motivating work environments

2. Stop using motivation methods that don’t work
When you keep telling employees what to do and they keep messing up, who’s being stupid? Some might say doing the same thing over and over, when it obviously doesn’t work, isn’t too sharp. Yet we often do just that, trying the same supervisory behaviors over and over and getting more and more frustrated when they don’t work.

If a method doesn’t seem to produce the commitment or competence you need, then stop and ask yourself why. Try to learn from the experience. And make a point of trying another approach next time. If you keep experimenting, eventually you’ll find a better approach.

3. Acknowledge that employees may be motivated by things beyond their work
Dynamic employees with significant growth potential generally are passionate about a hobby, sport, or cause beyond the workplace. These outside interests need not compete with their work. Their pursuit of mastery in their outside activities can be used to stimulate growth and motivation on the job as well.

How? Acknowledge that they are “real” people with their own interests. Find out what turns them on. Encourage and recognize their outside accomplishments. (Give them time off to run a race, organize an event, do a volunteer job or climb a mountain. Announce and praise their accomplishments.) The positive attitudes these outside accomplishments generate will carry over to their work. With your management support, it’s a win-win: The more employees accomplish outside of work, the more they’ll accomplish in their jobs as well.

4. Re-calibrate your motivation scale
We routinely accept mediocre motivation at work, forgetting that everyone is capable of high motivation levels. By looking at non-traditional benchmarks, we can re-calibrate our sense of what truly high motivation is. Sharing this realization throughout the organization helps create a vision of motivation for everyone to pursue.

How? Ask employees and managers for examples of exceptional motivation.

Seek out and share stories of exceptionally motivated explorers, athletes, musicians, artists, volunteers, inventors and entrepreneurs.

Find out what activities or pursuits have created maximum motivation in the past for employees. Encourage people to discuss these incidents and think about why they evoked such high motivation.

5. Teach employees to measure their own success
Employees who keep track of their performances are able to notice and document their development. They create their own scoreboards and are able to track their wins more effectively than any manager.

How? Every performance goal can be reduced to a simple, easy-to-track measurement. If the goal is not inherently quantitative, create a judgment scale to rate performance against. Today, only employees operating machinery in quality-oriented factories track their own performances routinely. Tomorrow, every employee should be measuring their own success.

6. Measure and track motivation levels
How can you manage something you don’t measure? Yet most organizations and managers have no idea how motivated their people really are. The typical employee satisfaction poll does not measure motivation. If you start to measure motivation, you can realistically expect to learn how to manage it. Without good measures, you’ll never get any better at managing motivation.

How? Use a simple, repeatable instrument such as the Job Motivation

Level (JML) Inventory. Take periodic measures of overall employee motivation. And encourage supervisors to track motivation within their own spans of control on a routine basis.

Ask employees what they want
Employees are motivated by…what motivates them! Different employees have different goals and desires, and therefore need different performance and development opportunities. You can’t motivate individuals with generic programs. To maximize motivation, as each employee what turns them on.

How? One way is to do participative goal-setting whenever you assign a task or project. Another is to have employees prepare personal strategic goals and plans, as they do at DELTA Dallas Staffing.

7. Learn to recognize and eliminate threats
Employees often feel that their managers use threats to try to motivate them, yet managers routinely deny it. They don’t mean to threaten employees, but if that’s how it feels to the employees, then it is a threat and it’s damaging to motivation levels. So managers need to learn to recognize the things that employees see as threats and work on eliminating or reframing them. Opportunity is an effective motivator. Fear is not.

How? Identify situations in which employees feel that rewards or resources are withheld for inadequate performances. Examples: The performance review that is seen as controlling access to raises and promotions. Rewards and bonuses that are seen as arbitrary based on management judgment or preference. Unreasonable work requests (such as working all weekend) that are backed up with an implied or felt threat such as job loss. Reframe each of these situations to make it clear that rewards may be given based on superior performance, but that rights will not be withheld for normal levels of performance. If uncertain as to whether something is seen as a reward or a threat, ask yourself what the most cynical employee might think. What would a Dilbert say?

8. Stop Distracting Employees
Most employees want nothing more than to focus on doing their jobs better and better. But from their perspective, critical incidents distract them, leading to worries about communication, security, fairness, respect and other key job criteria that managers rarely recognize. If you first take care of employees’ most fundamental intangible requirements, you can then shift the focus from their concerns to your motivation and performance agenda.

How? Ask employees what bothers or worries them about their work and workplace. Or refer to the many employee surveys that surface issues like open communication, security, management commitment to a course of action, fairness, respect and trust, and the presence of development opportunities. It is easy to give employees the free intangibles they require, but most managers don’t realize they are withholding these employee essentials.

9. Communicate!
Open communication is most employees’ #1 priority. And majority of employees say their managers don’t communicate openly with them. But a majority of managers say they do. Who’s right? Wrong question. If employees feel you are withholding information they need about their work or workplace, they will lose motivation and develop resistance to your management. Time to communicate more openly.

How? Since employees and managers generally see this issue differently, the simplest fix is to ask employees what they want to know. Ask them one-on-one, by e-mail, in meetings. Give employees at least one chance a week to ask you for information. And then give them the information, unless it is truly vital to keep it secret. It rarely is. Usually the information is not secret. It’s just kept secret because nobody thought to tell employees.