How to Motivate Employees: Look Beyond Money

Aug 28, 2019

When people are financially invested, they want a return.

When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.

—Simon Sinek


No matter what size their departments are and how far removed they are from the CEO’s office, all managers are responsible for defining the missions and goals of their departments (preferably keeping them in line with the overall missions and goals of their companies). By rewarding employees who successfully help a department accomplish its goals (often by achieving their own individual goals), leaders reinforce what is valued in—or even required by—a job.


Unfortunately, many leaders in corporate America don’t see the importance of recognizing and rewarding their employees. Because people who feel valued at work are more likely to be satisfied and motivated, those leaders miss out on many of the benefits of an engaged workforce:

  • higher productivity
  • higher success rates
  • better customer service
  • higher safety rates
  • greater job satisfaction
  • lower turnover and absenteeism
  • greater happiness

The more motivated employees are, the more likely they are to put forth their best efforts on behalf of the company. And those best efforts translate into great success for them—and for the organization.

When companies want to motivate their employees, they often turn to the old standby: money. No doubt, raises, bonuses, and other financial incentives can have a strong positive influence on employees. But money isn’t the only motivator out there. In fact, it’s not even the best motivator: in recent years, study after study has revealed that employees usually rank money well below the intrinsic awards associated with work that’s well done (and well appreciated).


Starting Point

Before taking any action to motivate their teams, managers must first motivate themselves, because their behaviors and attitudes have a ripple effect throughout their departments. When managers hate their jobs, their team members are more likely to hate their own jobs. When employees see that their managers are stressed out, the chances are good that they will be stressed out as well. After all, negativity is contagious. Fortunately, so is enthusiasm! When managers are excited and motivated about their jobs, it’s much easier for those around them to have similarly positive feelings about their own jobs.


Internal Motivation

Motivation that comes from within an individual has a more lasting effect on that person than external rewards (such as money, titles, corner offices, etc.) whose positive effects soon fade. Here are some strategies for helping employees develop intrinsic motivation.

  • Keep employees in the know. No one enjoys feeling like a cog in a machine. Employees are more engaged in their work and with the company if they have a sense of the “big picture,” not just of their small slice of the organization. So give them insight into how the company operates (and how it is doing financially). With this knowledge, employees are more likely to feel that the organization is their company—and not merely a place where they work in accounting or HR or marketing.
  • Assign interesting and engaging work. Management theorist Frederick Herzberg once said, “If you want someone to do a good job, give them a good job to do.” So give employees good jobs by making sure that their responsibilities include something of interest to them. Even in jobs that are inherently boring, having at least one or two stimulating projects can motivate employees to perform well on the mundane tasks, too.
  • Invite involvement and ownership in decisions. Most companies don’t prioritize involving employees in decisions that affect them. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider that practice, though. Keeping employees in the loop is not only respectful (and makes them feel like part of the company), but also practical: people who are closest to a situation typically have the best insight on how to improve it. Employees on the ground floor of an issue often know what works (and what doesn’t) and can provide valuable insight into how to resolve a problem quickly and effectively. In addition, employees who have a hand in crafting a solution feel ownership of it and are therefore more invested in working toward its successful implementation.
  • Increase visibility and opportunity. Don’t make assumptions about how much visibility and opportunity employees want. Everyone likes to be recognized and noticed by more than just his or her supervisors after doing a good job. Whether or not they want promotions or more challenging work, all employees flourish when they receive more visible recognition and opportunities that are personally meaningful.
  • Provide autonomy. Employees value the freedom to do their jobs as they see fit. So if employees are able to get their jobs done (and done well) on their own, leave them alone! Giving high-performing employees more autonomy increases the likelihood that those employees will continue to perform as desired. Even with new recruits who haven’t yet proven themselves, it’s possible to provide autonomy in work assignments by telling those employees what needs to be done without dictating exactly how to do it. By letting go of all the decision making, managers not only ease their own burdens but also empower employees to develop and demonstrate their own skills in leadership, organization, and communication.
  • Be loyal. Bosses should demonstrate loyalty to their employees, even though it can sometimes be challenging to do so. This can include being transparent (when possible), providing accurate feedback designed to improve an employee’s performance, and giving full and proper credit to employees for their work.
  • Show appreciation. It’s amazing how many managers don’t thank their employees for completing tasks. Yes, it’s their job to do that work, but why not take a moment to say a simple “Thank you”? All employees like to be appreciated, and whether appreciation takes the form of small gestures or big statements, it can go a long way toward motivating—and retaining—them.
  • Cultivate a fun environment. It’s common sense that when people like their workplaces, they’re more likely to stay with their companies longer and put more energy into their work. Even in companies that have more “buttoned up” or formal environments, managers can still try to inject some fun at the department level.
  • Show empathy. In any workplace and with any employee, sometimes “life just happens.” When employers understand that problems arise outside the office and are willing to work with employees in times of a crisis, that can go a long way toward building the goodwill that’s key to securing an employee for a longer tenure. (For example, one of my direct reports at Oxygen was barely able to hold it together during those first few months after he had twins. Thanks to stress and sleep deprivation, his work suffered. Up to this point, his performance had been outstanding, and I knew he was going through a rough patch. So instead of punishing him, I eased up a bit on assigning projects to him. He was able to catch his breath, and at month four his performance sprang back stronger than ever! Because I helped him through his difficult period, once it passed he was even more committed to me and to the company.)
  • Coach and mentor. Unlike the goddess Athena, who sprang from her father’s head as a fully grown adult ready to take on the world, people don’t start their careers with all the knowledge and skills they’ll ever need. They have to learn those things along the way—often with the help of their managers and senior colleagues. (In fact, most successful leaders have had a great mentor in their past!) By cultivating coaching and mentoring relationships within their own organizations, managers not only help employees develop their skills but also strengthen the relationships among team members—both of which can increase engagement.

It’s Not “All About the Benjamins”
Money can buy a lot of things, but it can’t buy everything. And in the workplace, it can’t buy the attitudes and knowledge that drive employee engagement. To motivate employees to do their best (both for themselves and for the organization), appreciate and reward their efforts and successes, and give them the recognition and support they need to thrive.


Valerie M. Grubb of Val Grubb & Associates Ltd. is an innovative and visionary operations leader with an exceptional ability to zero in on the systems, processes, and personnel issues that can hamper a company’s growth. Grubb regularly consults for mid-range companies wishing to expand and larger companies seeking efficiencies in back-office operations. She is the author of Planes, Canes, and Automobiles: Connecting with Your Aging Parents through Travel (Greenleaf, 2015) and Clash of the Generations: Managing the New Workplace Reality (Wiley, 2016). She can be reached at

Written by: Valerie Grubb

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