Employee Motivation Has to Be More Than 'a Pat on the Back'

Accountability leads to ownership, which improves the connection between employees and their work.

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By Heather R. Huhman


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Over the years, Pavel Vosk noticed something about employee motivation. The Puyallup, Washington-based business and management consultant watched time and again as previously overachieving employees turned into unmotivated ones. They'd go from giving 110 percent to doing the bare minimum in a relatively short period of time.

Related: 3 Methods Science Recommends for Motivating Employees

But it wasn't burnout causing the lack of effort, Vosk told me.

"What I discovered is that the biggest contributor to demotivation was lack of recognition for extra effort or work exceptionally performed," Vosk said. "Once employees realize that all their extra effort and hard work gets them nowhere with the company, they cease to exert any extra effort. They begin to withdraw and start the vicious cycle of doing just enough not to get fired or confronted."

According to Vosk, most employees go the extra mile only three times before they give up. And, once they become demotivated, employers are more likely to be stuck with those workers.

This trend of employees being unmotivated but unwilling to look for other, more inspiring work is known as "quitting in seat," and a December 2016 survey of more than 20,000 employees worldwide by CEB's Global Talent Monitor shows it's on the rise. This trend, however, can be reversed with some attention and effort from leaders. Here are five inspiring stories from experts on improving employee motivation:

Expressing gratitude to them

From Pavel Vosk:

"When my employees do something effectively or exceed my expectations, I make it my priority to recognize their efforts and reward them accordingly. The first time I came to realize [the importance of] this was when my employees stayed late to finish their project, even though it was a Friday night and they knew I did not expect them to stay late. On Monday, when I discovered that the project had been completed ahead of schedule, due to the prudence of my staff, I thanked them in front of the entire office and bought catering for all company staff the next week."

The takeaway: Gratitude is the foundation of employee motivation. It doesn't always have to be a large gesture. Even a simple, face-to-face thank you shows employees that their effort is not only noticed, but valued. Just consider first how an act of gratitude will be perceived by employees.

Talking to them

From Richard Frazao, President, Quaketek, Montreal, Quebec:

"I started to see an increase in absenteeism in one of my employees and sat down to chat with her over an informal lunch. I quickly learned that one of her current work assignments was starting to get mundane and was no longer challenging. I had her teach the task to one of our more junior team-members and replaced it with new, more challenging [tasks]. I also gave her the flexibility to approach the new challenges fairly autonomously. The absenteeism became a non-issue and the overall attitude was drastically improved."

The takeaway: Boredom is a big motivation killer, and it's affecting many employees.

According to a September 2016 Udemy for Business survey of 1,000 employees, 43 percent of respondents said they were bored in the office. Combat this trend by giving your own employees a way to voice their concerns about their jobs. If possible, sit down with them one on one to find out if they're still feeling challenged.

Related: 8 Ways to Motivate Employees Into an Unstoppable Team

Or, if that's not an option, use an engagement solution, like Mink. The platform uses pulse surveys to keep leaders informed of overall employee motivation levels. Then, if it's obvious that certain employees are faltering, they can be given some individualized attention in order to find a way to improve their motivation.

Sharing their accomplishments

From Eugene Gamble, Senior Manager and Business Consultant, Barbados:

"The most effective way I've motivated employees is to write a handwritten note about their accomplishments, achievements or the value they've created and sent it to their partner or parent. Is there any better way to motivate someone than having their work highlighted to someone very dear to them?"

The takeaway: Employees have more in their lives than work. They have family and friends who are proud of them and want to celebrate their successes. When you share information about an individual's success with their loved ones, the acknowledgement becomes more genuine and meaningful.

Showing them the bigger picture

From Anna Crowe, Founder and CEO, Crowe PR, San Diego

"I recently met with a junior staff member who is still learning the ropes. I explained to her how significantly her good work impacts the team and how important her daily tasks truly are to everyone else. I could feel those words making a difference and saw an incredible uptake in her enthusiasm for the same work. All because she understood her important role in the bigger picture." -

The takeaway: Many employees feel unmotivated because they see themselves as cogs in the machine. They don't understand how they're contributing to the organization as a whole. Or, even worse, they feel unimportant and replaceable. However, when they see how they're part of a bigger picture, they realize that their day-to-day tasks are meaningful and valuable.

Focusing on accountability

From Nick Armstrong, CEO, identitii, Sydney, Australia:

"Morale was low [at one of my companies] due to a lack of accountability and ownership. A sense of "that's not my job; someone else will do it' crept into the workplace. With the workload backlog increasing across the board, this created disgruntled, disengaged employees. We tackled the situation by empowering employees to take ownership in practical ways. The team helped redesign the office to their taste, giving them greater ownership and pride in their workplace."

The takeaway: Accountability leads to ownership, which improves the connection between employees and their work. By fostering accountability, employees can get more excited about what they're doing to help the company because it's become an extension and representation of who they are.

Related: Good Things Happen When You Put Employee Motivation First

Employee motivation is something that many companies struggle with. But it's not something that can be swept away. Business leaders need to actively try to encourage and inspire their employees so they continue to perform admirably.
Heather R. Huhman

Career and Workplace Expert; Founder and President, Come Recommended

Waldorf, Md.-based Heather R. Huhman is a career expert, experienced hiring manager and president of Come Recommended, the PR solution for job search and HR tech companies. She writes about issues impacting the modern workplace.

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