Job motivation is one of the most important considerations you’ll face as a manager, supervisor, entrepreneur, or team leader. Motivated employees are going to be more productive and happier, but ideas to motivate employees can be hard to come by, and even harder to execute. After all, motivation is internal, subjective, and somewhat elusive.
There are several ways to motivate employees and improve their productivity, including:
- Optimizing processes, like initiating more checks and balances to catch mistakes early or allocating work based on individuals’ strengths and weaknesses.
- Minimizing wasted time, like limiting time spent in unproductive meetings or on social media.
- Providing better tools, like automation technology that can handle repetitive tasks automatically.
- Increasing morale and satisfaction, because satisfied employees are productive employees.
Yet none of these approaches is quite as powerful as motivation, since motivation encourages employees to work harder on their own, for their own purposes. So how do you motivate employees? How do you motivate a team? How do you create incentives for employees that really work?
What Motivates You at Work? Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation
So, what motivates employees? Perhaps an easier question is to ask what motivates you at work. Let’s start with a discussion on the two broad categories of job motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic.
Extrinsic motivation depends on something external guiding you or incentivizing you to work harder. The easiest example here is money; you go to work every day not necessarily because you love what you do, but because you get a paycheck from going. Extrinsic motivators can also be intangible, like getting praise from someone you respect. Intrinsic motivation, by contrast, comes from within. If you want to run a marathon to feel proud of yourself (and not for a medal), that’s intrinsic motivation.
So which one is better to follow for your motivational ideas? As you might expect, that depends, as each approach has strengths and weaknesses. Intrinsic motivation is more powerful, as you might expect, especially in the long-term; because the motivation comes from within, it’s more sustainable, it can affect more areas of an employee’s work, and it’s less likely to lead to negative consequences like fierce competition or resentment.
However, intrinsic motivation is also much harder to foster; people are naturally motivated by very different things, and it’s hard to get inside someone’s head enough to internally inspire them. Extrinsic motivation is much easier to introduce into your workplace, and it works great in the short-term, but it’s not indefinitely sustainable.
So how do you motivate employees? You capitalize on both.
Ways to Motivate Employees With Extrinsic Motivation
If you’re looking for motivational ideas based on the concept of extrinsic motivation, you can try some of these ideas to motivate employees:
1. Offer merit-based raises.
Whatever else is motivating your employees, it’s a pretty safe bet they come to work for a paycheck. If that paycheck gets bigger, and they feel they’ve genuinely earned the increase, they’ll continue working harder. It’s also a good demonstration that hard work is rewarded. Cost of living increases can help, but if you want to make a bigger impact, try to tie your allocation of raises to exceptional performance.
2. Offer bonuses.
You can hypothetically offer a bonus for anything, either as a standing reward for achieving a specific target or as a surprise for a job well done. For example, you might grant a $1,000 bonus to any salesperson who closes 20 new deals in a month. Or you might give an especially hardworking employee a $500 bonus halfway through the year to let them know how much you appreciate their extra efforts. Both approaches can boost morale, and incentivize employees to do their best work.
3. Promote from within.
Promotions function well as extrinsic motivators, since many people attribute success to climbing the corporate ladder, and work actively to challenge themselves with newer, more important positions. But those promotions won’t mean anything if you keep hiring outside people to fill those leadership roles. Try to promote from within, and make sure your employees know that exceptional performance will be rewarded with higher-paying, better positions within the company.
4. Set rewards for team-based goals.
Remember, extrinsic motivation doesn’t have to be monetary, nor does it have to be physical. Sometimes, just having a goal to work for, set by another person, is extrinsic motivation enough. Consider setting team-based goals to encourage more collaboration within your team, and if you can, establish some kind of reward for achieving them. If you want to go the monetary route, that could mean a small bonus for each employee, but it could also mean better benefits or intangible rewards, like a company-wide half-day or more workplace flexibility.
5. Set rewards for individual-based goals.
You should also have something in place to recognize and reward employees (see our list of employee recognition ideas) for staying busy and/or improving themselves. Set goals for your team members one-on-one, either to challenge them to reach new heights or to help them compensate for an existing weakness. If and when they meet that individual goal, give them some kind of reward, like a monetary bonus, a raise, or again, something less tangible like better workplace benefits.
6. Throw a party.
You don’t always need a reason to throw a party, though it does help if you’ve recently reached a company milestone. As long as you have some kind of performance-based motivation for throwing the party, it will give employees something to work for. For example, you might host an informal get-together after being accident-free for 6 months, or throw a small banquet when you reach $10 million in sales.
7. Distribute awards.
While you’re at that party, or maybe at the end of the year, consider distributing awards. These can be as numerous as you want, and as serious or goofy as you want. You can tie them to a monetary prize, or just offer trophies, plaques, and certificates. For example, you might have an “employee of the year” prize with a $1,000 bonus to incentivize your team to work harder throughout the year. Or you might have a “best potluck cook” prize for the person who brings the best food to company potlucks. Either way, recognizing employees with awards is valuable.
8. Host a competition (with prizes).
Competition is a mixed bag, so you’ll want to be careful here, but if you run a competition with prizes, it can strongly motivate your employees. For example, you might have a contest to see who can close the most sales or resolve the most support tickets in a given period. As long as the competition remains friendly and mutually supportive, it will serve to incentivize your entire team; just make sure it doesn’t become cutthroat, or you’ll end up introducing stress and counteracting the benefits.
9. Give regular evaluations.
In school, grades are a form of extrinsic motivation. Most of the time, you’re not studying because you love the material; you’re studying because you want an “A.” You can introduce a similar extrinsic motivator in the form of annual reviews (or similar evaluations). Rate your employees on a scale of 1-10 on each of several categories of performance, and give them a final rating at the end of the evaluation. Your employees should be motivated to keep improving their score, even if it’s not tied to monetary compensation.
10. Offer a stake in the company.
This isn’t an option available to every business owner or team leader, but it can be a powerful one, especially for small businesses: give employees a formal stake in the company. If employees can make extra money when the company does well, they’ll be more inclined to put in the extra hours or extra effort to reach a milestone that’s important for the company.
11. Break down multiple milestones and sub-goals.
Big-picture goals and milestones are extremely valuable, but extrinsic motivation performs best when it follows a cycle of recognition and completion; in other words, big goals don’t always work well because it takes so long to achieve them. Instead, try to break those big milestones down into more digestible tasks, sub-projects, and achievements. That way, employees will always have something somewhat immediate to work for.
Ways to Motivate Employees With Intrinsic Motivation
However, your motivational skills might be better spent on intrinsic motivation, with these ideas to motivate employees intrinsically:
12. Give employees more autonomy.
Autonomy is akin to independence; it includes the ability to make decisions, choose projects to take on, and execute ground-level tasks without someone micromanaging you. Research shows that autonomy is one of the most important factors in employee satisfaction, and it gives employees a stake in the work they’re performing. When employees take more ownership over their work, they’re going to be more intrinsically motivated.
13. Give employees more flexibility.
You can similarly foster higher intrinsic motivation by giving employees more flexibility. That can apply in various areas of work; for example, you could allow employees to work whichever shifts they prefer, or allow them to take unlimited vacation time. You could also give them more options for how to execute their tasks. This makes employees feel like they’re choosing to work, rather than being forced to work, which allows them to conjure their own motivation, or choose environments, time slots, and other conditions that naturally motivate them.
14. Offer opportunities for personal growth.
Your employees are always looking to improve, whether that means increasing their personal productivity, learning new subjects, or mastering new skills. Offering these opportunities is a win-win; employees have the chance to increase their value and feel good doing it, and managers end up with more knowledgeable workers. There are many ways to approach this, including offering reimbursement for classes, in-house seminars, and cross-training with different departments.
15. Help employees set their own goals.
When set externally, goals are an extrinsic motivator, but if employees set their own goals, they can be an intrinsic motivator. During annual reviews, or in the course of everyday conversation, ask your employees about what they’d like to be achieving. If they have an idea for a personal goal, follow up with them to help them achieve it. If they don’t, ask question to help them figure something out.
16. Recognize and adapt to individual values.
Intrinsic motivation is difficult to improve because it’s subjective. Every individual on your team is going to have different values, different goals, and different philosophies dictating their work style. The only way to address this is to learn what those values, goals, and philosophies are, and work them into your goal-setting and team motivation ideas. For example, some of your employees will be highly motivated by monetary extrinsic rewards, so you can offer them bonuses for performance improvements. Others specifically want to get better at one thing, so give them more opportunities to polish their skills in that area.
17. Provide diverse sources of inspiration.
Small things can have a surprising effect on employee motivation and inspiration, but different people will respond differently to those sources. You can motivate a greater portion of your team by providing many diverse sources of motivation. For example, you can circulate productivity quotes to inspire people with sayings and findings from history’s greatest minds, or you can hang more art on the walls to provide inspiration for your most creative-minded employees.
18. Foster a positive environment.
The tone and outlook of your office is contagious. If even one negative person complains and belittles others on a regular basis, it can quickly make your environment turn toxic. Unsurprisingly, employees are much more motivated to come to work and work hard when they’re in a positive, supportive environment, so do your best to foster one; address and proactively nix instances of profound negativity, and reward employees who frequently praise each other, express gratitude, and generally work to support the entire team.
19. Make the job more interesting.
Is your workplace “interesting?” Or does it look like every other office in the world? There may be some employees out there who honestly prefer gray cubicle walls and mild fluorescent lighting, but most of us feel more comfortable and more inspired to go somewhere that naturally interests us. For different brands, that will mean different things; for yours it could mean including bolder colors or more modern furniture, or it could mean installing more recreational items like a billiards table or dart board in the break room.
20. Gamify whatever you can.
It’s hypothetically possible to gamify almost any work-related activity, introducing game-like elements to the situation. Human beings respond well to games, and are naturally driven by a desire to do well at them. Introducing new kinds of scoring systems, specific rules for engagement, and competition into any situation (even something mundane, like team meetings) can spice things up and help people find more enjoyment in their tasks. Combined with rewards for performing well in the game, this could be a perfect intrinsic-extrinsic motivation combo.
21. Provide novelty and regular changes.
It’s hard to be inspired by a work environment that’s always the same. You can make the job more interesting by changing things up from time to time; that could mean offering a different meeting structure, hosting occasional teambuilding activities in lieu of normal work, or even changing the physical arrangement of the furniture. This will help you meet every employee’s preferences, on rotation, and help employees resist the feeling that their job is overly repetitive or boring.
22. Offer time for self-reflection.
It’s easy to get lost in a task while forgetting its true purpose, or spend more time focused on making it to 5 pm than on feeling good with your ongoing work. Providing employees with more time for self-reflection can help them slow down, focus on their deliberate actions, and ultimately find more pleasure and fulfillment in their work. You can do this by encouraging employees to journal or conduct self-reviews, or by offering periods of meditation during the workday.
23. Allow time for semi-personal projects.
Google famously allowed its employees to dedicate a fraction of their work hours to “personal projects” they genuinely wanted to work on, both as a way to improve intrinsic motivation and to drive more innovation. It worked out; some of Google’s best products, including Gmail, emerged this way. The nature of your industry may make it unfeasible to let employees conceive and design their own pet projects, but you can replicate the effects by letting employees brainstorm and follow their own projects. Be open to hearing any new ideas, and reward the best ones that arise.
How to Motivate Employees: Measurement and Analysis
You can call upon the best motivational stories for employees and the best motivational strategies for employees, but they’re not going to reach their full effectiveness potential unless they’re complemented by a solid measurement and analysis strategy. Otherwise, how can you be sure that your chosen ways to motivate employees are working? How can you identify even better opportunities for job motivation?
That said, measuring motivation is tough. You’ll do best with a dual approach. First, measure the actual changes in your employees’ productivity. You can use a tool like EmailAnalytics to track things like how many emails they send in a day, how long they take writing and reading emails, and even how busy they are throughout the day and throughout the week. Over time, you’ll be able to definitively determine whether your team motivation ideas have a net positive effect on productivity.
Then, spend some time talking to your employees directly. Ask them how they personally feel about their own motivation, and whether it’s improved since you started improving your motivational strategies for employees. This qualitative data will complement the quantitative data you gather in your core productivity analysis.
If you’re interested in gauging the current motivation (or productivity) of your employees, or you’re about to overhaul your team motivation strategy, start using EmailAnalytics. You can sign up for a free trial today, and start gathering better insights on how your employees work, communicate, and engage with one another.
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before exiting it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics, and co-host of the podcast The Entrepreneur Cast.