By David Castlegrant

After researching the theme of this article, I found there is no shortage of material on the topic of employee motivation: 10 Ways, 18 Points, 5 Better Ways and The Number One Way. Remove” motivate” and replace with “how to make your first million dollars” and the Google searches almost look the same. So what is the right way to motivate your employees?

At the ending of a TV show from the early 1960s called, The Naked City, the announcer would state with an air of authority, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” The same thing could be said for the huge amount of information on employee motivation.

Considering all the research that has gone into the study of management, why are there so many theories, postulates, rational beliefs, undeniable truths and conclusions?
The answer lies in the uniqueness of each individual, thus, no one theory can ever apply to every situation. Top this with the reality that things such as technology, society, culture, economics and politics change over time, and it becomes even more clear no one theory works.

Another thing to consider is that no one can externally motivate anyone because motivation comes from within. Managers and business owners need to create the environment for motivation to have a chance to succeed. Some suggestions to consider are: a defined reward system, a positive organizational culture, simple job design, fairness and trust.

As a manager /owner, understanding the needs of your employees goes a long way in tailoring individual motivation appropriately. Some people can be very uncomfortable with public recognition while others enjoy it. Other individuals may have a strong need to defend, and therefore, require a different approach to change and organizational flexibility. Tailor the techniques, but most importantly, be transparent, trustworthy and genuinely fair. And, perhaps more importantly, keep your employees involved. They do the day-to-day work and you would be surprised how much they know about your business. It would be a good idea to ask for their suggestions on how to improve what is currently being done.

By Eric Garcetti (Workforce Investment Board) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Over the years, first in supervisory positions I have held working for other companies, and owning my own business, I have attempted variations of Employee Involvement (EI) with hourly store operations and warehouse workers, salaried managers, and even adjunct college professors. The results of establishing an employee involvement process were sometimes successful and sometimes not. The best that I can say for any and all attempts I made is that the work atmosphere was full of positive energy and a general sense of esprit de corps. There was a tremendous amount of trust among all members of the work unit as a result establishing an EI process.

Overall performance may not be consistent, however, due to a variety of reasons. Some killers of EI include leadership’s tendency to micro-manage, a lack of a clear mission/vision, the absence of a strategic plan, and the tendency to hurry on to the next task or phase. All of these realities can quickly trump the positive foundation that an EI process can bring and things just return back to where they were before.

In order for EI to work, you do need a self-starting, self-confident, self-motivated crew that can switch from acting as individuals to being part of a self-directed work team in a manner of minutes. There needs to be a bond, an element of unity, otherwise, much of the good work establishing the foundation will be compromised and become susceptible to collapse. EI also requires a tireless and valiant supervisor /manager /executive who is passionate about people as much as they are passionate about results. Leadership must believe that much can be learned by simply having the employees take an active role in problem solving and innovation.

It is difficult to boil down such a broad topic as motivation. That said, perhaps we can agree that all people want to be valued and understood. If managers and owners can act on these two ideas, maybe the “stuff” of motivation might follow.

David Castlegrant has extensive work experience as an executive retail operations manager, university professor and business consultant. Over 200 for profit, non-profit and higher education organizations have been served since the establishment of David Castlegrant & Associates in 1992.