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The 3 Keys to Employee Motivation

How can you inspire and motivate people?

It can be a real challenge, but a little knowledge goes a long way. Here are 3 key principles to employee motivation that you should know.

1. Make things interesting

Imagine walking into a casino. You go up to a slot machine, insert a coin, pull the lever, and JACKPOT!!!

So you play again. Same result.

Play again. Same result.

Again. Same.

Again. Same.

While you might like the money, would you actually enjoy this? Or is this casino from an episode of The Twilight Zone?

Without the element of luck, chance, and uncertainty, the casino would be out of business in no time. And not just because they would lose money–the casino “games” would be reduced to nothing more than boring transactions. Patrons would quickly lose interest.

But, let’s talk about a recent experiment by Chicago Booth that paints a vivid mental picture. Each participant in this study was given a big jug of water.

Some were told they would get $2 if they drink the whole thing in under 2 minutes.

43% drank it all before time was up.

Others were told that if they drink the whole thing in under 2 minutes, a coin flip would decide the reward: either $1 or $2.

70% drank it all before time was up.

Uncertain outcomes are just more interesting than certain ones. And as a side-effect, uncertainty often leads to greater employee motivation.

2. Know where to focus attention

Financial incentives don’t always work the way we might hope to motivate employees.

One of the largest available analyses combining data from 39 different studies found a modest relationship between incentives and performance quantity.

However, these incentives had no effect on performance quality.

Incentives tend to motivate employees to work harder, but not influence the quality of their work.

Why does this happen? Because the incentives tend to be focused on outcomes.

Focusing too much on desired outcomes steals attention from the actual process leading to those outcomes. It also undermines the ability to learn and improve and thus tends to hurt performance over time.

3. Know when to say “thank you” (or not)

Money can only get you so far in employee motivation.

Showing employees that you appreciate their work is often more effective at motivating them than other incentives.

People want to feel appreciated, and to believe that their work has meaning and purpose.

But did you know that employee appreciation isn’t always a good thing either?

It can actually reduce employee motivation.

Researchers call this the undermining effect.

Recent research suggests that recognition for relatively simple tasks tends to boost motivation, whereas recognition for more complex tasks tends to undermine it.

Fortunately, understanding how this works should be easy now that you know about the role of attention (see above).

When an employee performs a simple task, they are often focused on the task itself. Just do it. Recognition provides an added sense of meaning and purpose, that their work contributed to a desired goal and actually made a difference to someone.

This will be appreciated.

When an employee performs a more complex task, they are still probably more focused on the process than the outcome. But more importantly, people are much more likely to be interested and self-motivated by the process of performing complex tasks.

Praise or recognition for completing such tasks is likely to steal this focus…and that is rarely a good thing.