One more time: Tell me about motivation

January 10, 2002
By: Terry White

Probably no subject in the management world receives more attention but is more elusive than employee motivation.

Probably no subject in the management world receives more attention but is more elusive than employee motivation.

Much has been written about motivation, and many people have tried to formulate a definitive approach. However, a specific model that will work in all cases really has not emerged. Instead, the following are some operating principles that may assist managers in analyzing performance problems or developing a highly motivated work force.


Most employees get a sense of personal fulfillment from work, and managers can play a critical role in creating a workplace that provides meaning, affiliation, and identity. Employees don't want just to work for a company; they want to belong to an organization. To accomplish this challenging task, managers must translate corporate strategy into something meaningful for each employee within their department or division.

Understanding the needs and desires of your employees is fundamental as you attempt to engage both their hearts and minds. Relating the contributions of your work group to an overall purpose is the cornerstone of this initiative. One not-for-profit organization communicated that it, as a community asset, had a responsibility to the entire community to perform at a world-class level and that each employee played a significant role in reaching that goal.

People want to belong to an organization that makes a meaningful contribution to the world, and they want to feel that they are indeed a part of that effort.

Clear Goals

While goal setting is considered standard managerial activity, its impact is often muted by the process many managers employ.

A key ingredient in creating a highly motivated work force is defining clearly what is expected of each employee. Sounds simple, doesn't it? Don't be fooled-it's much easier to picture in your mind than to implement. However, employees who have a clear understanding of what needs to be done not only are more effective, but they bring a positive outlook to their workplaces. If they understand what is expected of them, they are able to self-monitor their progress without a lot of direct supervision.

In addition, employees can adjust their approach if they know what outcome is expected. They also derive more job satisfaction because they are less dependent on external rewards and more capable of critical self-evaluation as they attempt to measure their own progress.

This approach to goal setting requires preparation and a time commitment from managers. An interactive approach with subordinates is preferable because it tends to improve those relationships and produce higher-quality goals. Interactive does not mean, however, that subordinates set their own goals without managerial involvement. Goals that are meaningful typically have clear measures, a timetable, and significant connection to the overall direction of the organization.

The first meeting between the manager and subordinate should revolve around a review of the previous year's goals, foreseeable changes in the environment, and overall direction of the department. A discussion of criteria that would contribute to a meaningful goal in the coming year would be a good starting point for the conversation. A second meeting might involve both parties bringing some potential goals and key measures to evaluate success.

Positive Reinforcement

The rule of thumb for managers seeking to boost performance is to catch people doing something right and recognize it. When behavior is reinforced immediately, it is more likely to occur again later. Don't take acceptable performance for granted-let people know that you see and appreciate it.

In one sense, you are managing the perceptions of your work group. The style you use to identify and reward positive performance shapes behavior in your work environment by clarifying what is important to you, the manager. Because the manager-employee relationship is the variable that often has the largest impact on employee performance, you are establishing the foundation by defining the performance you value.

However, your praise must be sincere. If people believe that you are not genuine or that you are recognizing insignificant performance, they will conclude that you are using positive reinforcement as manipulation.

The keys are balance, timing, and clarity. A manager must operate within a band of success. If praise is overdone, it loses its reinforcement value because your employees won't see it as genuine. If you give out too little recognition, people may conclude, "What's the use? Nobody notices when a I make a major contribution around here." In recognition, tuning into your employees within that band of success-finding that balance between too much and too little-really can pay off.

Praise also needs to be specific and focus on the behavior and the outcome. For example: "Mary, when you spoke up in the meeting this morning, it gave the group a new perspective on the problem and really helped us find a solution. Thanks." This typically is more effective than saying, "Mary, good job in the meeting this morning." By outlining clearly the action you felt contributed and describing its impact, Mary will gain a better understanding of the value of her contribution and its outcome. You begin to connect the dots for your employees if you're consistent with this style and strategy.

Defining purpose, setting clear goals, and using positive reinforcement appropriately can create a framework for motivating employees and helping managers along the path of improving their workplaces. At the end of the day, however, the choice whether or not they demonstrate positively motivated behavior rests with your employees. All managers can do is develop and apply a consistent set of principles; personal behavior decisions ultimately are determined by individuals themselves.

Behavior often is impacted greatly by circumstances and consequences, and managers have a great deal of control over them both.

"Example is not the main thing in influencing the behavior of others, it is the only thing," Albert Schweitzer once said. As a manager, you are on stage all the time. As a result, you have the opportunity to model that behavior you desire from your employees. That example often speaks more loudly than anything you could say.

Terry White

Contributing Writer