Positive reinforcement is key to motivating employees to work better and harder. Appreciation overwhelmingly influences employee work ethic, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management.
“The findings confirm that positive feedback and praise have an impact on an employee’s performance. When that feedback is coupled with a reward, performance is driven even further,” the 2013 survey concluded.
Engaging employees through positive feedback is ultimately easier than the carrot-and-stick alternatives.
The Wall Street Journal makes this point in its guide on motivating employees. But first it steps back and asks, “Why do people work?” If you believe employees work only for the money or because they have to, you’re left with imposing strong-armed tactics — punch clocks, nagging and intricate financial arrangements.
In his 1960 book “The Human Side of Enterprise,” MIT professor Douglas McGregor challenged the assumption that money and supervision alone are enough to motivate employees. He found it is more effective to empower employees to self-motivate.
The Wall Street Journal concluded in reviewing McGregor’s research that “giving people responsibility caused them to rise to the challenge. Unleashing their imagination, ingenuity and creativity resulted in their contributions to the organization being multiplied many times over.”
Managers can start this positive process of motivating employees in five ways.
1) Tell Employees Why Their Work Matters
Employees who understand how their work fits into the big picture do their jobs more efficiently. This is for two reasons, according to consultant Chris Griffiths.
“First, they go from thinking the task is menial to understanding its impact on a much larger scale; second, when they understand the reasons, they start to think more independently,” he writes in The Globe and Mail.
What are your employees’ job goals? Listen for their answers, advises the Wall Street Journal. Helping an employee define his or her own clear path for advancement is a great way to stimulate motivation from within.
3) Give a Sense of Autonomy
Dan Pink, in his 2009 TED talk, suggests granting employees flexibility to spark productivity and creativity. He cites the work environment at Google, where some of the company’s best innovations came about during periods when employees are allowed to work by their own schedules, without constraints.
4) Create an Environment of Trust
Employees who feel trusted feel less need to rebel. In a fascinating case study, reported by Wharton professor Adam Grant, a sawmill troubled by employee theft squelched the problem by offering to loan out the company equipment — and accept any equipment already out on “loan,” no questions asked. The stolen equipment was returned. With the thrill of misbehaving gone, employees stopped stealing.
5) Say Thank You. No Ifs, Ands or Buts.
Appreciation matters, and timing matters. Focus on gratitude. When you thank your employees, don’t immediately follow it up with criticism or suggestions for doing better next time.
“The ‘but’ negates the win. Period. Although it may be well-intentioned, the “but” has the unintended consequence of devaluing the effort that you want all of your employees to exhibit,” writes John Kotter in Forbes.
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