How to motivate your employees without spending money

If there are two numbers that should terrify any employer, it’s these: 5.6% and 70%.

The first is the latest national unemployment figure, and it’s the lowest it’s been since June 2008.

The second is the percentage of employees, according to a 2013 Gallup survey, who are not engaged in their work.

Add those two together and you don’t get 75.6% — you get trouble for employers hoping to retain their best talent. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that bored, unhappy employees with fresh job opportunities could become ex-employees before you can say “two weeks’ notice.”

In the Madison metropolitan area, where the unemployment rate has shrunk to a wafer-thin 3.4% — good for 25th best in the nation — employers really need to stay on their toes, lest all that goodwill they thought they’d built up turn into a massive brain drain.

Luckily, you don’t have to just sit back and watch the mass exodus unfold. According to Laura V. Page, a local independent business and organization consultant, even cash-strapped small businesses and nonprofits can find ways to better motivate their employees without spending lots of lucre.

Laura V. Page

On Feb. 3 at the American Family Insurance DreamBank, Page will host a small business workshop titled “How to Motivate Your Team Members Without Money.”

To Page, there are plenty of things employers can do to ensure their employees stay motivated — some familiar and “easy” and others more surprising and more complex.

One that’s familiar but not necessarily easy is consistently giving employees positive feedback for a job well done.

“Sure, everybody thinks they give praise powerfully,” said Page. “They do a lot of thanking, but they don’t thank people very well. … We can do a better job of recognition, and one way is to recognize more often even for little things.

“Also, the praise feedback should be way more specific and behavioral and include a reason for why you’re happy. And that means you’ve got to think about your praise before you say it and do it more often. So, yeah, that takes a little bit of time, but it’s free.”

Of course, to know how to motivate your employees, you have to really get to know them in order to figure out what type of feedback motivates them. To do that, says Page, you have to engage in more robust, personal conversations with them that get beyond just the social niceties of the workday.

“A personal conversation means slowing down enough so that you can ask them, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years, and what is it about your job that you like and don’t like?’” said Page. “And that doesn’t mean you can respond to everything they may want, but we don’t really listen enough, because the other thing that’s happened is we’re all busier, and that’s getting in the way of trust.”

Getting along

Other tactics Page mentions that may or may not seem obvious to employers are cross-training to prevent boredom, regularly including employees in company decisions that affect them, and giving employees a lot of autonomy.

“If you want to kill off somebody’s motivation, then tell them how to do things instead of just what to do,” said Page. “So it is the dilemma of giving assignments but then not micromanaging, and as a consultant, I know a lot of my clients are micromanagers, but that’s part of being human.”

Another factor that commonly leads to on-the-job malaise is working with people you simply don’t like.

“I listen to hundreds of people each year about their work, often under hyperconfidential situations, and they tell me what they’re feeling and thinking, and they’re usually concerned about who they’re working with,” said Page. “So we have to think a little deeper about that and more often about what motivates people — it’s usually other people, regardless of the nature of the work. And we don’t do enough to foster trust between team members.”

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But while disputes among employees may sometimes seem intractable — particularly when there are major personality conflicts involved — managers can get beyond them with a little training and a deft hand.

It all comes down to skillfully mediating disputes instead of simply arbitrating.

“When A is mad at B and they run to the boss, they want the boss to fix the situation by agreeing with them, and you would have a natural tendency to agree with one or the other,” said Page. “So then because you have power, you end up making the solution the one that you think is right, but that doesn’t necessarily repair the relationship. So you want to train [your managers] to be better at mediating instead of arbitrating, because you want to repair the teamwork and the relationship, not just decide who’s right and wrong.”

Another factor managers and business owners are dealing with these days is the rising influence of the millennial generation. While older employees are often loyal for the sake of being loyal, millennials as a group are famously fickle — though that doesn’t mean they can’t be motivated.

“I think the major difference is you have to earn their trust,” said Page. “So it is harder, I think, and you have to be more active about your other sources of power other than the formal, legitimate power — you know, ‘you’re the owner, you’re the founder, you’re the entrepreneur.’ For [millennials], it’s like, ‘So what?’ In the older generations, the veteran generations, that has a lot of weight, but not for the new generations.”

Of course, if motivating and mollifying people hardly seems like second nature to many business owners, they shouldn’t feel too bad. Few entrepreneurs have psychology degrees, and it often takes training and practice to manage people effectively.

“Entrepreneurs mostly fail in their management because it’s so hard,” said Page. “They started the business because they love and are passionate about a customer segment or a technology or a solution to something, but this people stuff is so hard and it usually has almost nothing to do with why they started the business. It becomes extremely difficult. And then the other thing is we have gotten so busy that we forget to be continuous learners. There’s so much to learn about if you’re going to be a leader.”

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