How to Motivate Employees: 5 Strategies

How to Motivate Employees: 5 Strategies

In today’s workplace, managers are increasingly being asked to act as coaches. Here's how to coach your employees towards peak performance.

Even if you’ve never played a single game of organized sports, you’ve likely been coached. Maybe you’ve had a teacher who took a special interest in you. Perhaps you’ve had a boss who inspired you to take on more responsibility. None of these people wear a ballcap or carry a whistle, but if you look at the definition of coach they all do one simple thing: they motivate you to raise your game. 

In today’s workplace, managers are increasingly being asked to act as coaches. In a recent Harvard Business Review article, London School of Business professor Herminia Ibarra and Anne Scoular, an expert in business coaching, write explain that managers are evolving into coaches because the work environment is changing—from one in which success meant reproducing what’s worked in the past to one marked by “rapid, constant, and disruptive change.” Now, managers are tasked with giving support rather than instructions, or guidance rather than mandates. 

The manager-turned-coach is in charge of one important factor: employee empowerment. 

Empowerment often stems from the right combination of competence, motivation, and engagement—as a manager you’re especially well-equipped to ensure your work environment cultivates both. 

Here are 5 strategies for motivating your employees. 

1. Find out what motivates your employees 

There is no shortcut for getting to know someone, still, there are some frameworks that you can use to help identify certain motivational traits. In general, some people are achievement driven while others are capability driven. 

Achievement-driven people thrive on accomplishing tasks and receiving positive feedback. They’re not fussy about what job they’re doing, but as long as they’re consistently hitting benchmarks, and receiving adequate acknowledgement of a job well done, they’ll likely stay motivated. Setting achievable goals will be paramount for this type of person. 

Competence-driven people are driven by the pursuit of mastery. They’re more apt to see their chosen profession as a craft that’s being honed over time. The more they see themselves as competent (or are perceived that way by outsiders) the more likely they are to feel motivated.

2. Provide the right type of feedback 

A 2018 Gallup poll found that just 14.5 percent of managers feel they’re good at giving feedback to their employees. One way to improve your ability to give feedback is to recognize that giving  feedback isn’t like giving someone a grade. This is an important concept to keep in mind, especially when giving performance reviews or scoring a team member’s OKRs

Whether it’s good or bad, all feedback should both impart employees with the desire to improve. That means you should highlight successes, encourage employees, and be specific about how they can grow. Perhaps the most important thing to convey while giving feedback is to give the employee a sense of agency. Even if there is room for improvement, there are steps that can be taken to get on the right track. 

Again, the goal is to leave employees feeling good, and excited to work harder. When employees feel criticized or demeaned, bad things happen to employee engagement.

According to a 2019 Gallup poll, only 10 percent of people who feel criticized after receiving feedback remain engaged (four out of five often seek other jobs). But workers whose managers left them feeling positive and motivated were 3.9 times more likely to be engaged at work. 

3. Recognize (and reward) good work

In psychologist Dan Ariely’s book Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations there’s a description of a now apocryphal study on pizza, compliments, and cash. It speaks to the rewards employees actually want. 

In the experiment, workers at an Intel semiconductor factory in Israel were treated to one of three rewards: a cash bonus, a pizza, or a text message from their boss reading “Well done!” 

Pizza just barely edged out a compliment as the most powerful motivator (cash was a persistent underperformer).

Workers promised pizza were 6.7 percent more productive over the course of a week, whereas those promised a compliment were 6.6 percent more productive. 

While we can’t write off the power of pizza, the study does speak to the power of employee recognition. Adam Grant, a professor of psychology at Wharton, puts it especially well: 

“A sense of appreciation is the single most sustainable motivator at work,” he said. “Extrinsic motivators can stop having much meaning—your raise in pay feels like your just due, your bonus gets spent, your new title doesn’t sound so important once you have it. But the sense that other people appreciate what you do sticks with you.”

4. Trust your employees to be autonomous 

Flexibility and the ability to control how and when work gets done is increasingly important to millennials and Gen Z. As Upwork CEO Stephane Kasirel told CNBC, Gen Z and millennials are “flexible work natives.”

“The traditional 9-to-5 office job doesn’t adequately support the lives millennials and Gen Zs want to live,” she said. 

To truly allow this portion of the workforce to thrive, managers and employees have to trust one another to hit deadlines, remain engaged, and over time, become self-motivated. If you have created that kind of environment, less oversight can perhaps lead to increased job satisfaction in the long run. 

In fact, increasing autonomy in the workplace is one way to improve wellbeing, and stoke motivation. As a study in the Journal of Work and Occupations points out, control over manner of work increases work satisfaction for women. For men, an informal schedule improves both job satisfaction and life satisfaction. 

Taken together, everyone values a bit of flexibility. That can only happen if managers and employees work together to create an environment of mutual trust. 

5. Always provide the “why” 

A good coach always imparts each team member with a sense of collective purpose: maybe that’s a championship game, a quest for revenge, or the thirst to prove themselves on the field. 

A good manager also has to give employees something to strive for; the answer to the question: why are we doing this?

Gallup research has revealed that employees who feel connected to their company’s mission are between five percent and 15 percent more profitable, and undergo 15 to 30 percent less turnover. 

A higher purpose is a talisman that employees can cling to during especially difficult moments. It’s your job as a manager to find that purpose, and make it clear to all the members of the team. 


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