Motivating Employees: Ideas to Create High-Performing Workplaces


By Merge Gupta-Sunderji, MBA, CSP

It doesn’t matter how large your organization or what industry you’re in, if you’re having trouble inspiring your troops, you’re not going to go very far for very long. Unfortunately, there are no magic pills when it comes to encouraging and motivating your people. But one solution to this timeless management conundrum has been known for years. A basic principle of human motivation that helped revolutionize the theory and practice of leadership was discovered quite by accident in the early 1930s.

The Hawthorne Effect
Let’s start with a little bit of history. At a manufacturing plant in Hawthorne, IL, Harvard Business School professor Elton Mayo conducted a series of experiments between 1927 and 1932. He took six women from the assembly line and put them under the supervision of a manager who was known to be a friendly observer as opposed to a strict disciplinarian. He then improved the team’s working conditions by altering rest breaks, work hours, temperature and humidity, and as he expected, productivity went up. Later, he reinstated the original working conditions, expecting productivity to fall to previous levels. Much to his surprise, it went up even further.

Mayo had discovered a fundamental concept: that workplaces are social environments. When the employees were singled out from the rest of the factory workers, it raised their self-esteem and allowed them to develop more team spirit. When they were allowed to have a friendly relationship with their supervisor, they felt happier at work. In a nutshell: because of these positive changes, the supervisor had secured their cooperation and loyalty, so productivity continued to rise even when their rest breaks and other perks were taken away. Mayo’s research is now known as the Hawthorne effect.


Applying the Hawthorne Effect
Since 1932, substantial investigation has been conducted on the Hawthorne Effect, and there are several points on which the experts unanimously agree.
• Employee behavior is the result of forces both within the individual and in the environment.
• Employees make conscious decisions about their behavior.
• Employees have different needs, desires, and goals.
• Employees do what they see is rewarded. These points offer important insight into what motivates employees.

First, employees make deliberate choices based on their environment. Since you, as the leader, create the environment, it is possible to influence the performance of your employees.

Second, while employees are motivated by rewards, different employees are influenced by different types of rewards. Many of the leaders I work with assume that rewards mean an endless drain on their budgets. Not necessarily. Since employees have different needs, desires, and goals, there is great opportunity to be flexible and creative in coming up with inexpensive ways to reward (and thus motivate) your employees. To get you started, here are five low-cost ideas to motivate people on a shoestring budget.

1. Offer Praise
You can’t beat praise for its cost-effectiveness as a motivator. As long as it’s genuine and timely, it can work wonders. People often ask me what “timely” means; my own rule is to offer praise within 24 hours of the praise-worthy event. And as long as the praise is directed at a specific behavior or result, it can never be too much. Keep in mind that praise is always best delivered in person. Voicemail should be your second choice, but if it’s e-mail or not at all, then a short note is an acceptable alternative.

2. Say Thank You
For cost-benefit value, this one can’t be beat either, but go beyond the obvious. Don’t just thank employees for working the weekend, staying late, or coming in early; thank their families as well. Sending a card or even flowers to your employee’s significant other will move you light-years forward in getting the best out of your people.

3. Share Information Tell people what you know as quickly as possible. Don’t wait until you get all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed before you make a formal announcement. Instead, tell people what’s confirmed and what’s subject to revision – they can handle the uncertainty (really!). Besides, when information is lacking, people will often make it up and invariably assume the worst. As misinformation makes its way through the company grapevine, it can take on a monstrous life of its own. You’re better off feeding the grapevine, even with limited information, than pretending it doesn’t exist.

4. Be Flexible
Organizational policies are there for a reason, but as a leader, you’ve also been charged with exercising good judgment. You have room to bend the rules occasionally to fit your team’s needs. I’m not suggesting that you start re-writing the policy manual, but your ability to flex the rules when a positive outcome outweighs any negative consequences can be highly motivating to many people.

5. Have Fun
Set up “fun committees” to make sure you don’t lose sight of this objective. I divided my group of direct reports into four teams and assigned each team a three-month period during which they were responsible for fun. I gave each committee $250 and let them go. The only rules were that the fun had to be legal and ethical. My committees planned birthday cakes, hallway bowling tournaments, potlucks, even practical jokes. The point is they got involved and had fun. And they loved coming to work.

These inexpensive ideas work because employees perceive rewards in different ways. This gives you a powerful opportunity to seek out imaginative low-cost ways to motivate your employees. Let these five ideas be a springboard to your own inventiveness and resourcefulness, and don’t be afraid to try something different and unexpected!

Merge Gupta-Sunderji, MBA, CSP, turns managers into leaders by giving them specific and practical how-to steps to create high-performing, productive, and positive workplaces. Contact her at or 403.605.4756.

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