By Bob Nelson

One of the definitions of motivation is “why you do what you do.” There are numerous ironies about motivation that make the topic difficult to understand. By examining these ironies, you can better understand the topic of motivation. Following, then, are the top ten ironies of motivation, in order of importance and prevalence.

Most managers think money is the top motivator

The first irony is all about money (or not). It’s very easy to assume money is the only (or biggest) element that motivates employee, but don’t fall into that trap! Study after study shows that praise and recognition are the greatest motivators for employees. People want to feel they are making a contribution at work; for most individuals, this is a function of having the respect of peers and colleagues, having managers who tell them when they do a good job, and being involved and informed about what’s going on in their departments or organizations.

When you want to motivate your employees, you may be tempted to offer raises or bonuses. That impulse is nice, but those actions alone don’t genuinely motivate. What employees really want is to be valued for a job well done by those they hold in high esteem.

What motivates others is often different from what motivates you

Not everyone wants what you want! Managers often identify good wages, job security, and promotion or growth opportunities as the primary reasons their employees work. Why? Because these are often things that motivate them, and they believe their employees are motivated by the same things. Employees, however, report intangibles, such as appreciation for work done, feeling “in” on things, and having empathetic managers as the things they most want from their jobs.

To avoid falling victim to this all-to-common assumption, consciously work to reward behaviors with the types of recognition that are valued by and meaningful to your employees, not yourself! Start with the motivational needs of your employees and use their preferences to acknowledge them when they’ve done good work.

Ask employees what they want, either by engaging in one-on-one discussions or by using other techniques, such as giving employees index cards on which they can list the items they find motivating. You can also conduct a survey with your work group or in a staff meeting to discuss the kinds of recognition your employees find meaningful. The best management is the kind you do with your employees, not to them.

Things that most motivate employees are easy and inexpensive

One of the saddest ironies is that managers and executives often fail to provide recognition because they think it’s costly and time-consuming. In one study of potential workplace motivators, three of the top five incentives ranked by employees had no cost: a personal thank you from one’s manager for a job well done; a written thank you from one’s manager for a job well done; and public praise. When you implement these simple (and free) forms of recognition in a timely, sincere, and specific manner, employees feel valued and appreciated.

Aside from recognition, there are other ways to motivate your employees that don’t cost money or time:

  • Provide interesting and important work.

  • Communicate well.

  • Involve employees in decisions.

  • Give them independence, autonomy, and flexibility.

  • Increase their opportunities for learning, growth, and responsibility.

Formal awards are only as good as what they symbolize

Although a shiny, fancy plaque might look good, it doesn’t always feel good; it all comes down to the meaning. The recognition value (the intangible, symbolic, and emotional value) of any award is by far the most motivating aspect for employees. Formal awards are useful for acknowledging significant accomplishments, especially as they span a long period. They can also lend credibility to more spontaneous, informal rewards used regularly by management.

Still, using money, merchandise, or plaques to motivate employees can fall short if the gestures don’t have the proper framework. To get the most out of formal awards and to make sure that the focus of the award remains on the performance and achievement — not the award itself — managers must be skilled in the way they present such awards:

  • Present in a public forum.

  • Provide a context for the recognition.

  • Share your feelings.

Fun, simple, and creative rewards work best

Despite how well they work, more times than not businesses don’t use fun and simple ideas because they think they somehow undermine the seriousness or credibility of the business. Not only is this terribly ironic; it’s also a big mistake.

Recognizing performance means the most to employees

People don’t want something for nothing; they want something for something — recognition for a job well done. Having someone you hold in high esteem at work notice that you performed well and then do something to acknowledge your efforts is the most meaningful kind of recognition. In addition, employees are highly motivated by activities that directly affect the company’s bottom line.

It takes less effort to sustain desired behavior than to initially create it

The irony behind failing to recognize positive behavior is that you’re passing up an easy opportunity. Consider that you don’t have to teach your employee the behavior they demonstrated; you just have to notice it when it occurs! Reinforcement theory tells us that after an employee establishes a new behavior, the manager can best perpetuate that behavior through intermittent reinforcement. In other words, don’t neglect to recognize the behavior you want just because a program to promote it has ended. Selective ongoing emphasis on the behavior can perpetuate results at a fraction of the original time and effort.

Keep communicating information about performance and achievement. Publish articles about continued results and examples of successes in your organization’s newsletter or call them out publicly in meetings. For example, employee suggestions can continue to be highlighted by noting company savings from each suggestion or by interviewing top contributors to encourage role modeling. Have management individually thank employees who have continued to perform as desired. Whether you do it in the hallway, via voice-mail, or on a sticky note, keep saying “Thanks!” and “Good job!” to perpetuate ongoing results.

Managers don’t focus on employee motivation until it’s lost

So often, managers are too busy focusing on what’s urgent, such as dealing with daily crises in their jobs, and forget about regularly motivating and recognizing employees until that motivation is lost. Morale sinks, employees quit, and then management scrambles to figure out ways to energize and motivate employees. As you can probably guess, reenergizing employees who have poor morale is much more difficult than doing little things along the way to keep them engaged.

The same type of scenario often plays out as smaller companies grow. Smaller businesses have a lot of inherent motivators — variety of jobs, more direct contact with top management, more room for advancement, and the like. But, as a company grows, these types of motivators disappear and management often fails to supplement what is lost with other forms of recognition. The situation is often made worse by the increase of demotivators that come from having more bureaucracy, policy manuals, approval processes, and the like as the organization grows.

Helping employees develop marketable skills makes them more likely to stay

The very definition of marketable skills implies that those who have them can be paid more in the market. Yet, as you make it a priority to help employees learn and grow, your employees will be more likely to want to stay because they’ll know that they’re in a very special place. If you don’t show an interest in employees — what skills they want to learn, where they want to be in five years, how they are growing in their jobs — you won’t be able to persuade them to stay if they get a job offer elsewhere. By clearly showing that you have the individual employee’s best interests at heart through your behaviors, you reap the benefits tenfold.

Skill development is especially motivational for today’s younger workforce. These employees constantly want to learn new skills, both to keep their jobs exciting and challenging, and to increase their marketability.

You get what you reward is common sense but rarely practiced

Everyone likes to be appreciated. Results of a survey by the Council of Communication Management confirm what almost every employee already knows: that recognition for a job well done is the top motivator of employee performance. Yet how many managers consider appreciating others to be a major function of their job today? Not many. Most managers fail to use the potential power of recognition and rewards. This is true even though 33 percent of managers themselves report that they would rather work in an organization where they could receive better recognition.

What used to be common courtesies have been overcome by speed and technology in today’s businesses. Managers tend to be too busy and too removed from their employees to notice when they have done good work, let alone to thank them for it. Technology has replaced personal interaction with one’s manager with constant interfacing on a computer display.