Inspiration Points

Unmotivated employees could cost you your business.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the September 1997 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Must you be a naturally gifted, charismatic leader to inspire your employees to give their all on the job? Truly inspired workers will do that for you regardless of how much charm you have. The bad news is, when employees aren't inspired, you're losing money.

"You'll pay a high price; as much as 30 percent of an uninspired employee's potential energy is left on the table, untapped," says John Thompson, founder and CEO of Human Factors Inc., a San Rafael, California, consulting firm that specializes in helping business leaders tap into employees' discretionary energy.

More concretely, when workers aren't inspired, you're apt to see complacency, declining morale and discouragement, says Ramon Aldag, chair of the management and human resources department at the School of Business at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Many business owners understand the costs of employee apathy but don't feel they have the charisma to turn these attitudes around. Not to worry: "Charisma is yesteryear's idea of inspirational leadership," says Don Maruska, a business coach in Morro Bay, California. "In fact, charisma can get in the way of building a great company because charismatic leaders too often squelch the creativity of everybody else in the business."

Get the Message

If not by being charismatic, just how do you rev up a work force? It starts with conveying your company's purpose to employees, says Thompson. Workers crave meaningful jobs; they want their efforts to make a difference. When they know what they are working toward, they will put forth full energy on a regular basis.

Communicate your purpose to employees in ways they'll understand. Plenty of bosses falter here. In a general sense, most business owners know their company's purpose, but when it comes to conveying the message, they get tongue-tied. "Talk from the heart; that's what inspires people," advises Cindy Lindsay, director of the organizational psychology program at the California School of Professional Psychology in Los Angeles.

Once you've spread the word, it's time to act. "A lot of inspiration comes down to modeling," says Thompson. "You can't put lofty goals up on the wall and then act with no regard to them. You have to show your purpose through your actions. The best way to pump up workers is to let them see you're serious about your values. This spirit is infectious."

Take just those steps, Thompson says, and you're well on the road to creating an inspired work force: "You'll begin to see a difference," he says.

While employees at businesses with altruistic missions--natural products company Tom's of Maine with its all-natural philosophy, for example--may be easily filled with inspiration, will the same formula work at more ordinary companies? You bet, assures Thompson. "Any company that is succeeding economically is serving a purpose," he says. "Make [your company's] purpose clear, and you're on your way to inspiring workers."

Above And Beyond

Solid as that start is, there are more steps to take to keep your employees working at peak levels. "Set high standards, but stay optimistic and encouraging," advises Aldag. You won't inspire employees if you give them nothing to shoot for or discourage their efforts to excel.

Another key to motivating workers is allowing them flexibility in how they do their jobs. "Job autonomy is a key factor in inspiring workers," says Lindsay. Won't workers make some mistakes? Probably, but inspirational management will overlook honest errors that are made when workers are trying to innovate for the company's good. "Praise the worker's creativity," says Lindsay, then point out better ways to do the task.

But don't make the mistake of pointing out an employee's every weakness. "Don't dwell on their failings; build on their strengths," says Gerald Graham, dean of the Barton School of Business at Wichita State University in Kansas. "I've seen cases where employees who were fired by other companies were hired by entrepreneurial leaders who transformed these cast-off employees into real winners. It builds incredible loyalty." Obviously you have to draw the line with mistakes that cost the company money or business. "But don't make a big deal out of [small errors] if the basic job the person was hired to do is being done well."

A final key to inspiring workers: "Make room for the visions of others," says Lindsay. "Many entrepreneurs hold on too tightly to their visions and ignore the input of employees. This squelches worker enthusiasm." Seeing the validity of employees' visions and incorporating them into your business will not only help your workers' inspiration levels soar, but the business's vision will never stagnate because it will continually be modified by new input.

This may sound like a lot of work, and, yes, the business owner carries a heavy load in the initial phase of a campaign to boost inspiration levels. But not for long. Today's approaches to inspiration hold that while it's up to you to light a fire under workers, you can soon step aside and let them keep themselves inspired. "The new paradigm is to shift primacy from the inspired leader to the inspired organization, and the role of the leader in this organization is to create an opportunity for people to articulate what's important to them in their work and thereby to discover what inspires them to do their best," says Maruska.

Here's a fairly easy way to jump-start the inspiration level within your business. Gather the work group together, says Maruska, and hand each individual four or five sheets of paper. Ask everyone to write down their top hopes and aspirations for themselves and the business, with one aspiration outlined per sheet. Then have them hand the sheets to a co-worker, who reads them aloud and after each asks "Why is this important to you?"

"Something magical happens when people articulate their answers to that simple question. I've seen it work with top executives and with janitors," says Maruska. "People really get clarity on how working here, at this company, can fit in with their personal aspirations, and that inspires them.

"Workers really do want to be inspired about their work, and when they are, they work better, smarter and harder. To get that high energy, just help your employees see more clearly why they are working for you. When they know why, they will inspire themselves."

Robert McGarvey writes on business, psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or ideas, log on to

Contact Sources

Human Factors Inc., (415) 499-8181

Don Maruska, (805) 772-4667,


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