Motivating Employees

by Babak Armajani

Jackie Werth from San Diego County asks: Does anyone know of creative or innovative ways to reward employees for merit and/or results?  In San Diego County, we have a Quality First program in which staff are organized by “performance group” or unit and receiving a bonus for achieving a variety of performance goals.  However, this is difficult to administer, so we are looking for alternative ideas.

Jackie, you are engaged in advanced motivation; not surprising given San Diego County’s reputation for excellence in management.  I have several thoughts about your excellent question.

First, motivation is idiosyncratic.  That is, different people are motivated by different things. So, any approach to motivation needs to take the individual into account.  That’s why I like to stay away from elaborate County-wide reward systems.  Instead, you will get better results by giving managers and employees a set of tools that can be used to motivate themselves and others; each according to his or her own motivation needs.  While doing annual reviews with employees at PSG, one person asked that the firm pay for her house cleaning service.  She figured it would cost about $400/month.  I wanted to really reward her so I suggested giving her a raise of $800/mo.  She said, “No, I don’t want the money because I will never end up using it for house cleaning.  I want the firm to give me a clean house.”  It was hard for me to refuse the opportunity to reward a great employee at half the cost of what the firm was prepared to spend.

Second, two general types of reward motivate people:  extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic rewards can come from your boss, the County, even your co-workers or a customer.  They involve somebody rewarding you. Things like bonuses, plaques, or days off are examples of extrinsic rewards.  Intrinsic rewards come from inside the person.  They are self-rewarded.  What drives a mountain climber?  Intrinsic rewards.  Or a student doing extra credit to get an A?  Intrinsic rewards.  Or a busy mother who volunteers her precious time at a local food bank?  Intrinsic rewards.

Frederick Hertzberg, who studied motivation back in the 60’s, found a) that a sense of accomplishment, personal challenge, increased   responsibility, and belonging were among the strongest intrinsic rewards in organizations.  Further, he demonstrated that b) intrinsic rewards are generally much stronger than extrinsic ones (though some individuals are strongly motivated towards money and other extrinsic rewards).  Most importantly for your challenge, Jackie, Hertzberg posited that c) the motivational value of extrinsic rewards tends to “zero out.”  That is, if I get used to winning a bonus for my good work in San Diego County, I’ll come to expect the bonus.  It will no longer “satisfy” me—in Hertzberg’s terms. In fact, NOT getting a bonus will dissatisfy me.

Third, I’m learning that, its good to have things like the County’s bonus system, but that you will get the best results if you make this a team reward rather than an individual one. Especially, if the basis for the bonus is on some objective measurable criterion. The head of the federal student loan system (FSA) promised and delivered a fixed bonus to every employee if and when the organization met specific targets in customer (students with loans) satisfaction, unit cost (the average administrative cost of a student loan or grant), and employee engagement (measured by Gallup).  This was a big deal for most employees.  They were not only motivated to win the bonus, but also they were compelled to come out of their silos and collaborate with one another in order to reach the targets.

Fourth, harness the power of intrinsic rewards—not necessarily through some sort of “system”—but rather by giving employee frequent opportunities to reward themselves.  Ask yourself these questions about your organization:

•    Do we have ways to directly connect employees with those whom they serve?
•    Are there measures that let employees know how they are doing?
•    Are these measures prominent in the work place?
•    Are the data on the measures updated daily or at least weekly?
•    Do employees understand the connection between their job and your organization’s mission?

Taken together, these four strategies can help San Diego County build a full repertoire of rewards that motivate employees to continuously improve.

4 responses to “Motivating Employees

  1. i think it’s most important to make employees feel a sense of ownership and pay them (fairly) accordingly to their performace. of course, it’s not always easy to determine performance but i made very good experience especially in smaller companies and in projects.

  2. What a nice, succinct article!

    Great advice!

  3. I’m searching for an organizaation, maybe this would be San Diego County, that has a mission of , customer driven, high performance workplace, any ideas on this? thanks jim

  4. If only more than 33 people could read this..

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