Employee motivation is the level of energy, commitment, and creativity that a company's workers apply to their jobs. In the increasingly competitive business environment of recent years, finding ways to motivate employees has become a pressing concern for many managers. In fact, a number of different theories and methods of employee motivation have emerged, ranging from monetary incentives to increased involvement and empowerment. Employee motivation can sometimes be particularly problematic for small businesses, where the owner often has spent so many years building a company that he/she finds it difficult to delegate meaningful responsibilities to others. But entrepreneurs should be mindful of such pitfalls, for the effects of low employee motivation on small businesses can be devastating. Some of the problems associated with unmotivated workers include complacency, declining morale, and widespread discouragement. If allowed to continue, these problems can reduce productivity, earnings, and competitiveness in a small business.

On the other hand, small businesses can also provide an ideal atmosphere for fostering employee motivation, because employees are able to see the results of their contributions in a more immediate way than in large firms. Besides increasing productivity and competitiveness, a highly motivated work force can allow a small business owner to relinquish day-today, operational control and instead concentrate on long-term strategies to grow the business. "Workers really do want to be inspired about their work, and when they are, they work better, smarter, and harder," business coach Don Maruska told Entrepreneur.

Moreover, a business that institutes effective ways—whether tangible (such as a financial bonus) or intangible (say, a plum assignment for an upcoming project)—of rewarding employees for good work can be an invaluable tool in employee retention. "People enjoy working, and tend to thrive in organizations that create positive work environments," one business researcher told HR Focus. "[They thrive in] environments where they can make a difference, and where most people in the organization are competent and pulling together to move the company forward. Appropriately structured reward and recognition programs are important, but not exclusive, components in this mix."


One approach to employee motivation has been to view "add-ins" to an individual's job as the primary factors in improving performance. Endless mixes of employee benefits—such as health care, life insurance, profit sharing, employee stock ownership plans, exercise facilities, subsidized meal plans, child care availability, company cars, and more—have been used by companies in their efforts to maintain happy employees in the belief that happy employees are motivated employees.

Many modern theorists, however, propose that the motivation an employee feels toward his or her job has less to do with material rewards than with the design of the job itself. Studies as far back as 1950 have shown that highly segmented and simplified jobs resulted in lower employee morale and output. Other consequences of low employee motivation include absenteeism and high turnover, both of which are very costly for any company. As a result, "job enlargement" initiatives began to crop up in major companies in the 1950s.

On the academic front, Turner and Lawrence suggested that there are three basic characteristics of a "motivating" job:

1. It must allow a worker to feel personally responsible for a meaningful portion of the work accomplished. An employee must feel ownership of and connection with the work he or she performs. Even in team situations, a successful effort will foster an awareness in an individual that his or her contributions were important in accomplishing the group's tasks.
2. It must provide outcomes which have intrinsic meaning to the individual. Effective work that does not lead a worker to feel that his or her efforts matter will not be maintained. The outcome of an employee's work must have value to himself or herself and to others in the organization.
3. It must provide the employee with feedback about his or her accomplishments. A constructive, believable critique of the work performed is crucial to a worker's motivation to improve.

While terminology changes, the tenets of employee motivation remain relatively unchanged from findings over half a century ago. Today's buzzwords include "empowerment," "quality circles," and "teamwork." All of these terms demonstrate the three characteristics of motivating jobs set forth in the theory of Turner and Lawrence. Empowerment gives autonomy and allows an employee to have ownership of ideas and accomplishments, whether acting alone or in teams. Quality circles and the increasing occurrence of teams in today's work environments give employees opportunities to reinforce the importance of the work accomplished by members as well as receive feedback on the efficacy of that work.

In small businesses, which may lack the resources to enact formal employee motivation programs, managers can nonetheless accomplish the same basic principles. In order to help employees feel like their jobs are meaningful and that their contributions are valuable to the company, the small business owner needs to communicate the company's purpose to employees. This communication should take the form of words as well as actions. In addition, the small business owner should set high standards for employees, but also remain supportive of their efforts when goals cannot be reached. It may also be helpful to allow employees as much autonomy and flexibility as possible in how their jobs are performed. Creativity will be encouraged if honest mistakes are corrected but not punished. Finally, the small business owner should take steps to incorporate the vision of employees for the company with his or her own vision. This will motivate employees to contribute to the small business's goals, as well as help prevent stagnation in its direction and purpose.


There are as many different methods of motivating employees today as there are companies operating in the global business environment. Still, some strategies are prevalent across all organizations striving to improve employee motivation. The best employee motivation efforts will focus on what the employees deem to be important. It may be that employees within the same department of the same organization will have different motivators. Many organizations today find that flexibility in job design and reward systems has resulted in employees' increased longevity with the company, improved productivity, and better morale.

EMPOWERMENT Giving employees more responsibility and decision-making authority increases their realm of control over the tasks for which they are held responsible and better equips them to carry out those tasks. As a result, feelings of frustration arising from being held accountable for something one does not have the resources to carry out are diminished. Energy is diverted from self-preservation to improved task accomplishment.

CREATIVITY AND INNOVATION At many companies, employees with creative ideas do not express them to management for fear that their input will be ignored or ridiculed. Company approval and toeing the company line have become so ingrained in some working environments that both the employee and the organization suffer. When the power to create in the organization is pushed down from the top to line personnel, employees who know a job, product, or service best are given the opportunity to use their ideas to improve it. The power to create motivates employees and benefits the organization in having a more flexible work force, using more wisely the experience of its employees, and increasing the exchange of ideas and information among employees and departments. These improvements also create an openness to change that can give a company the ability to respond quickly to market changes and sustain a first mover advantage in the marketplace.

LEARNING If employees are given the tools and the opportunities to accomplish more, most will take on the challenge. Companies can motivate employees to achieve more by committing to perpetual enhancement of employee skills. Accreditation and licensing programs for employees are an increasingly popular and effective way to bring about growth in employee knowledge and motivation. Often, these programs improve employees' attitudes toward the client and the company, while bolstering self-confidence. Supporting this assertion, an analysis of factors which influence motivation-to-learn found that it is directly related to the extent to which training participants believe that such participation will affect their job or career utility. In other words, if the body of knowledge gained can be applied to the work to be accomplished, then the acquisition of that knowledge will be a worthwhile event for the employee and employer.

QUALITY OF LIFE The number of hours worked each week by American workers is on the rise, and many families have two adults working those increased hours. Under these circumstances, many workers are left wondering how to meet the demands of their lives beyond the workplace. Often, this concern occurs while at work and may reduce an employee's productivity and morale. Companies that have instituted flexible employee arrangements have gained motivated employees whose productivity has increased. Programs incorporating flextime, condensed workweeks, or job sharing, for example, have been successful in focusing overwhelmed employees toward the work to be done and away from the demands of their private lives.

MONETARY INCENTIVE For all the championing of alternative motivators, money still occupies a major place in the mix of motivators. The sharing of a company's profits gives incentive to employees to produce a quality product, perform a quality service, or improve the quality of a process within the company. What benefits the company directly benefits the employee. Monetary and other rewards are being given to employees for generating cost-savings or process-improving ideas, to boost productivity and reduce absenteeism. Money is effective when it is directly tied to an employee's ideas or accomplishments. Nevertheless, if not coupled with other, nonmonetary motivators, its motivating effects are short-lived. Further, monetary incentives can prove counterproductive if not made available to all members of the organization.

OTHER INCENTIVES Study after study has found that the most effective motivators of workers are nonmonetary. Monetary systems are insufficient motivators, in part because expectations often exceed results and because disparity between salaried individuals may divide rather than unite employees. Proven nonmonetary positive motivators foster team spirit and include recognition, responsibility, and advancement. Managers who recognize the "small wins" of employees, promote participatory environments, and treat employees with fairness and respect will find their employees to be more highly motivated. One company's managers brainstormed to come up with 30 powerful rewards that cost little or nothing to implement. The most effective rewards, such as letters of commendation and time off from work, enhanced personal ful-fillment and self-respect. Over the longer term, sincere praise and personal gestures are far more effective and more economical than awards of money alone. In the end, a program that combines monetary reward systems and satisfies intrinsic, self-actualizing needs may be the most potent employee motivator.

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