Not a Motivation, but Gratitude. How to Motivate Staff when the known motivation systems fail.

The debate on how to motivate employees effectively is longstanding, with countless articles and books presenting varied opinions. In the business world, we often encounter two distinct environments: one where employees' eyes sparkle with enthusiasm for their work, and another where a sense of gloom is palpable from the moment you step through the door.

Motivation in the Workplace

Motivation literature tends to fall into two categories:

  1. Pro-Motivation Approach: This first category insists that employees must be actively motivated to excel. It includes various methodologies ranging from "ropes courses" to sophisticated motivational systems based on competitions and rewards, emphasizing ways to boost employee morale and engagement.

  2. Skepticism Toward Motivation: The second category argues against the need for motivation, suggesting that it's futile. Proponents believe that humans are inherently lazy, advocating for stringent management styles over encouragement, which can sometimes undermine morale and retention.

Having navigated through both perspectives over my 16-year management career — in civil service, advertising, retail, consulting, and business education — I have explored these theories firsthand. My consultancy focuses on strategic management, including enterprise strategy and leadership, as well as strategic marketing and Quick Response Manufacturing (QRM). I primarily work with medium-sized businesses, often handling tangible production and service challenges.

My Journey in Employee Motivation

My initial approach to leadership was shaped by my military-like experience in civil service: strict discipline and rigid hierarchy. However, when I transitioned to the private sector, starting with an advertising agency, I quickly realized that such methods were ineffective. Employees performed tasks but lacked initiative and creativity. This approach required me to micromanage, which was exhausting and inefficient. When I later joined a hypermarket as a top manager, I faced similar challenges. The staff seemed to lack commitment, and their disinterest became evident when the business suffered losses due to oversight by the programming team.

How Effective Leadership Transforms Motivation at Work

Discovering effective ways to motivate your team can sometimes feel like navigating a maze. This exploration led me to shift dramatically from a strict, hierarchical approach to one centered on personal connections and empathy. Despite the high hopes, this method resulted in a lax atmosphere where deadlines were missed, and client dissatisfaction grew — yet everyone was a "friend." It became clear that while creating a friendly workplace is essential, without proper boundaries, it can lead to a lack of accountability.

Exploring Structured Motivational Systems

Driven by my experiences and further inspired by renowned leaders like Jack Welch, I ventured into developing structured motivation systems. I experimented with various formal systems of motivation, including grades, ranks, competitions, bonuses, and prizes in sectors like business education and production. Unfortunately, these systems often failed to spark the expected enthusiasm for work. It became apparent that real motivation often stemmed not from these systems but from the employees' personal drive and alignment with the company's vision.

Strategic Leadership and Employee Engagement

As a leader, my journey taught me the importance of understanding the nuanced differences between simple incentives and true motivation. Incentives, often financial, are straightforward — they reward specific achievements. But true motivation is more complex, involving non-material elements that engage employees deeply and sustainably. This realization underscored the need for a more holistic approach to motivation, one that combines strategic management with genuine leadership to foster an engaged and inspired workforce.

Implementing a Balanced Approach in Medium-Sized Businesses

Through my leadership at EMAS Business School and various consulting roles, I've observed firsthand the impact of a balanced motivational strategy. This approach, which blends both incentives and deeper motivational factors, has proven effective across various industries, especially in medium-sized businesses where adaptability and personal contribution are critical. The success lies in aligning business goals with employees' personal and professional aspirations, thereby fostering a workplace where individuals are genuinely invested in the collective success.

The paradox of motivating staff in any business environment is well-known and challenging. Despite many efforts, creating a universal motivation system that effectively boosts every employee's productivity remains elusive. As a seasoned consultant in strategic management, I've observed firsthand the complexities of enhancing workplace productivity. It is evident that while it's necessary to aim for increased productivity, the notion that one can universally motivate all employees is fundamentally flawed.

During my tenure as a business trainer and during strategic management sessions for MBA and Executive MBA students at EMAS, a pivotal question often arises. I ask managers to consider: "How many dedicated, like-minded individuals do you truly need to transform your work outcomes?" Surprisingly, the responses often suggest that just a handful of well-aligned and competent individuals — typically no more than five — are crucial for achieving significant results. This insight highlights a critical aspect of leadership: the impact of focusing on key players within a team rather than attempting to universally motivate everyone.

Applying Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) to Motivation

The principles of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) provide valuable insights into the psychology of motivation. A fundamental premise of NLP is that individuals cannot be compelled to change their beliefs unless they are inherently ready for such a change. This understanding is crucial when considering motivational strategies. Instead of forcing ideas, effective leaders should cultivate an environment where meaningful change can be personally embraced and where the motivations align naturally with the individual’s intrinsic values.

The Reality of Motivating Large Teams

Consider the practical scenario of managing a large factory with 1,000 employees. The idea of personally understanding the inner world of each employee to craft individually tailored goals is impractical. Even with the help of deputies, the scale makes it infeasible. The common advice that leaders must delve into each employee's personal aspirations to align them with corporate goals overlooks the logistical complexities involved in large-scale operations.

Strategic Goal Alignment and Leadership

The most practical approach in such scenarios isn’t to reshape every individual's intrinsic motivations but rather to foster a work environment that promotes shared values and common goals. Effective leadership is characterized not by the ability to motivate everyone equally but to inspire those key team members whose roles are critical for driving success. By focusing on these pivotal individuals and ensuring they are engaged and motivated, their influence and dedication can permeate throughout the team, enhancing overall performance and morale.

As a leader, understanding the diverse inner worlds of your employees, especially in larger teams, is nearly impossible. The complexity increases exponentially with the size of the team. For instance, even if a company has only 50 or 30 employees, fully grasping each individual's motives, desires, and values remains a formidable challenge.

However, in smaller settings, such as a company or department of five individuals, diving deep into each team member’s personal aspirations becomes feasible. This intimate environment allows for a personalized approach, where a manager can genuinely connect with each employee's intrinsic motivations. Yet, this often reveals a diverse array of personal goals and life situations that can complicate the creation of a unified motivational strategy.

For example, in such a small team, you may discover that while one employee seeks comfort and minimal responsibility, another might be ambitiously eyeing entrepreneurial ventures post-experience. Others might be preoccupied with personal milestones like marriage or parenting, impacting their focus and availability. Another team member could be aspiring for your job, creating a complex dynamic if you're the current manager. This diversity makes crafting a one-size-fits-all motivational strategy not only difficult but practically ineffective.

These real-world examples underscore a critical flaw in traditional motivational theories that suggest tailoring company goals to align with individual employee desires. Such theories often fail to scale in real business environments or lead to significant productivity gains. Attempting to mold company objectives to fit individual desires can be counterproductive, as not all personal goals align with business objectives.

The realization that it's impractical to motivate every employee equally leads to an innovative approach: focus on key individuals who can drive change. The real impact comes from empowering a few pivotal players within the organization who share the leader's vision and commitment. By concentrating on these core individuals, leaders can more effectively leverage their influence to propel the entire team towards shared objectives.

Ultimately, the goal isn't to create an exhaustive motivation system that attempts to cater to each employee but to cultivate a culture where self-motivated individuals thrive. These employees naturally align with the company's strategic goals, reducing the need for external motivators. Leaders should foster an environment that recognizes and rewards these self-driven individuals, thus enhancing overall productivity and morale without the need for an overarching motivational system.

Building a Motivation System Through Vision and Leadership

Step 1: Formulating a Compelling Vision

The foundation of any robust motivation system starts with the formulation of a Vision, which serves as the cornerstone of a company's strategic direction. A Vision isn't just any goal; it's the ultimate aspiration of what the company aims to achieve, encapsulating both ambition and detailed strategic outcomes expected over a certain period. This Vision must resonate deeply with the top manager—it should be something they are genuinely passionate about achieving. The commitment and enthusiasm of the leader for this Vision are critical, as it influences the motivation and engagement of the entire company. If the Vision is articulated only as a formal requirement and lacks genuine desire, it fails to inspire and may even deter the most capable individuals.

Step 2: Communicating the Vision and Identifying Self-Motivated Associates

Once the Vision is established, the next crucial step involves sharing and explaining this Vision to key deputies and potential like-minded associates within the organization. It's essential to understand that while you can present and rationalize the Vision, the goal isn't to force or overly persuade others to accept it. Instead, the focus should be on identifying those who naturally align with this Vision due to their inner convictions or professional aspirations.

A leader's role here is not to adapt the Vision to fit others but to find those who see and understand the strategic direction as compelling and personally motivating. This process helps in pinpointing associates who are self-motivated and ready to commit to the Vision, thus eliminating the need for external motivation tactics.

In strategic management, selecting associates is akin to striving for an unattainable result—constantly aiming for the ideal even though it might never be fully realized. Just as athletes at the Olympics push themselves to set new records despite knowing these may soon be surpassed, business leaders must continuously strive to create the 'ideal company.' This relentless pursuit not only propels the company forward but also ensures it stays ahead of competitors who may deem such aspirations unrealistic.

The process of selecting like-minded individuals should be based on their ability to actively participate in realizing the Vision. This means evaluating potential associates not just on current competencies but also on their potential for growth and their alignment with the company's long-term goals.

Step 3: Integrating Associates' Aspirations into the Vision

While the Vision of the company originates from the top manager, it becomes more potent when it encompasses the personal aspirations of key associates. This step isn't about compromising the Vision but enriching it by aligning it with what key employees hope to achieve personally and professionally as they contribute to the company's success. In practical terms, this involves one-on-one discussions with key staff to understand their personal goals, such as career advancement, financial incentives, or professional development opportunities. These elements are essential as they ensure that the associates are not only committed to the company's Vision because of alignment with corporate goals but also see a clear path to fulfilling their personal and professional aspirations.

Step 4: Decision Making Regarding Non-Associates

The declaration of a Vision also serves as a litmus test to identify who among the staff are truly aligned with the company's strategic direction. For those who are not fully aligned, or 'non-associates', there are two paths: if their performance is adequate, they may remain until a more aligned associate is identified. However, if their performance is subpar, actions to find a replacement should be initiated promptly. This policy should be transparent within the organization—everyone should understand that full alignment with the company’s Vision is crucial for long-term tenure and success within the company.

Step 5: Formulating Divisional Visions

Once the company’s overarching Vision is set, like-minded leaders of various divisions or business units are tasked with developing their own Visions that support and align with the central corporate Vision. Each divisional head must also possess a genuine desire to achieve their specific Vision, as their commitment will be critical to motivating their respective teams. Just like the company-wide Vision, these divisional Visions should serve as a foundation for motivation and strategic direction within each part of the organization. The alignment across all levels ensures that every unit’s efforts contribute cohesively towards the company’s overarching goals.

Steps 6 - 7: Explaining Divisional Visions and Selecting Associates

Step 6: Middle Managers Communicate Visions

Middle managers are tasked with explaining their specific Visions to their subordinates. This process mirrors the explanation and selection that top managers undergo but on a smaller scale. It's essential that middle managers select their own like-minded people, those who are genuinely interested in achieving the divisional Vision. Although middle managers may not have the authority to grant special rewards directly, they should confirm these rewards with top-level managers or be granted the power to do so.

Step 7: Approval of Divisional Visions

Once the Visions are communicated, middle managers must seek approval from their selected like-minded subordinates. This approval ensures everyone is on the same page and is committed to achieving the set goals. This approach helps form an interconnected system of motivations throughout the company, where each level of management is aligned with the corporate Vision.

Implementing the Vision at the Staff Level

At the lowest management levels and among staff members, the approach slightly shifts from finding like-minded individuals to enforcing strict discipline and clear business processes. This shift is necessary because staff members typically focus on earning a salary rather than aligning with broader corporate goals. Therefore, the system at this level includes the following elements:

  1. Clearly Defined Business Processes: Each employee must understand their role and responsibilities, including the specific operations they must perform. A comprehensive map of the company’s business processes is crucial to identify the responsible party in case of operational failures.

  2. Simple and Clear KPIs: Each unit and individual must have clear Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) derived from the Vision of their respective unit. This ensures that every employee's performance aligns with the overall strategic goals.

  3. Fair Wage System Linked to KPIs: Salaries should be fair and directly linked to the achievement of KPIs. This incentivizes employees to meet their performance targets.

  4. Clear Accountability: There should be well-defined responsibilities for not achieving KPIs, with unavoidable disciplinary actions for any offenses. This helps maintain a high standard of performance and accountability.

  5. Career Development Systems: A clear pathway for career development, whether vertical (promotions) or horizontal (lateral moves), should be established to motivate employees to improve their performance and skills.

  6. Position Profiles and Competency Models: Developing detailed position profiles and corporate competency models can help in aligning individual roles with the company's strategic objectives.

  7. Intra-corporate Training and Professional Development: Encouraging and assisting employees in their professional development through training programs ensures continuous improvement and skill enhancement.

Addressing Key Issues in Implementing the Motivation System

Differences in Status: Elevating Associates

First, let's discuss the significant difference in status between like-minded people (associates) and everyone else. This difference should be substantial and visible to everyone within the company. Associates should receive the majority of benefits and bonuses: enhanced social benefit packages, privileges, respect from others, and special events organized specifically for them. This distinction is an acknowledgment of their self-motivation and commitment to helping the leader achieve the Vision. It’s crucial that the reasons behind this special treatment are transparent, ensuring all employees understand why associates receive these perks.

However, these benefits should not be excessive. If an associate fails to meet expectations, particularly in achieving KPIs, they should quickly lose these privileges. Conversely, if a previously non-associate demonstrates excellent work and commitment to the Vision, they should be promoted to associate status and receive the corresponding benefits. This balanced approach ensures that the system remains fair and does not demoralize other staff members.

The rationale behind providing special benefits to associates is economically sound. It should be attractive for employees to become associates, as it brings tangible rewards and results. Ambitious and capable individuals should see the positive examples set by their colleagues and be motivated to support the leader and join the ranks of associates eager to achieve the Vision.

Integration with Strategic Planning

Second, the motivation system must be integrated into the strategic planning process of the company. This motivation system cannot function in isolation; it is an integral part of strategic planning. The system is based on the Vision, which is the primary goal set by the top-level manager for the company. The Vision is a critical component of strategic planning, essentially representing the strategic plan, market position, and necessary activities to achieve the Vision.

Therefore, the like-minded people are not just motivated individuals; they are those committed to implementing the strategy to fulfill the Vision. Any change in strategy or Vision could potentially alter the group of like-minded people.

Regular Review and Adaptation

Third, the recommendations from individual like-minded people should be regularly reviewed and discussed among the leaders and associates. This should follow an established procedure, typically an annual meeting. However, the core Vision of the leader should remain consistent. Changing the Vision frequently can demotivate the team, as it may signal indecision and undermine the staff’s efforts toward achieving the Vision.

Regular discussions ensure that the Vision and motivation remain relevant and aligned with the associates’ interests. Associates may leave, new ones may join, and interests may evolve. The manager must stay attuned to these changes, which is why the Vision generally covers a period of 3 to 5 years. It is unrealistic to expect the list of associates and their interests to remain static over such a period. Regular feedback channels between employees and the manager are essential for maintaining alignment and motivation.

Addressing Skepticism and Building Trust

Fourth, it's important to consider the possible skepticism among associates regarding the fulfillment of promises once the Vision is achieved. To mitigate this skepticism, the process of achieving the Vision should be divided into specific, successive stages, ideally annual. This approach ties into the strategic planning system within the company. After reaching each stage, the leader should partially fulfill the promises made to individual associates during the Vision formulation phase. Similarly, the promises made to the entire team should also be partially implemented. This incremental approach builds trust and demonstrates commitment to the Vision and the associates’ contributions.

Propagating the Vision Continuously

Fifth, in relation to goal-setting, it's crucial to understand that a manager's work involves two main elements. The first is formulating the Vision and developing a strategy for achieving it. The second, equally important element, is the "Vision Propaganda." Developing and approving the Vision and strategy is just the beginning. The manager must continuously propagate the Vision, ensuring that the staff believe in its validity and achievability. This ongoing process is essential throughout the strategy implementation period to maintain employee belief and motivation despite any difficulties or setbacks encountered along the way.

Collective Effort in Vision and Strategy Development

Sixth, the formal side of the issue is very important. The process of developing the Vision and the strategy for achieving it should appear as a collective effort. This involves creating a working team that includes all key employees in the company (or key employees of the highest rank in larger companies). This team collaboratively develops the company's strategy step by step, from market analysis to strategic activities. They share ideas, express doubts, and suggest initiatives. During Vision development, team members provide input on what the main goal of the company should be and the strategy for its achievement. The top-level manager then formulates the Vision, considering these suggestions without being obligated to accept them all. This procedure increases key employees' involvement and their chances of becoming associates. In contrast, developing the Vision and strategy unilaterally and then presenting them to employees can lead to rejection. The principle of "he consulted with us" is extremely important here.

Supplementing with a Robust HR System

Seventh, the motivation system, with an emphasis on the Vision, must be supplemented by a well-developed HR system, a clear career development system, and internal corporate training for deserving employees. If a self-motivated, well-disciplined employee with excellent KPI performance is at the bottom of the hierarchical ladder, they should be aware of their career development opportunities, including the necessary steps and conditions. They should be encouraged and given opportunities for corporate education and skill enhancement. Today, several federal companies are already implementing such systems, which is encouraging news.

Differentiating Motivation and Corporate Culture Management

Eighth, it is essential to clearly distinguish between managing staff motivation (motivation system) and managing corporate culture, which emphasizes encouraging initiative and responsibility. Despite their interconnection, these are distinct aspects. This article focuses on the motivation system and does not delve into corporate culture management. EMAS has conducted preliminary studies in this area, specifically investigating the online system for corporate culture monitoring called "EMAS - a Heptahedron of the Corporate Culture Health." However, this system requires a separate discussion. There are also good books available on this topic.

Finally, it's important to remember that in addition to interesting goals, people are motivated by people — specifically, the personality of their leader. Therefore, the company should create a system that helps develop leadership skills in managers at all levels.

The described motivation system is based on the thesis that it is impossible to motivate someone who doesn't want to be motivated, and therefore, it's unnecessary to try to motivate everyone. The system focuses on self-motivation, selecting associates, and rewarding them for their self-motivation. This approach resembles a loyalty system but emphasizes commitment to the goals/Vision rather than just the leader's personality. When implemented correctly, this system attracts smart, ambitious, and enthusiastic employees by offering opportunities for self-realization, visible status advantages, and clear expectations.

About the author:

Andrey KOLYADA (Nizhny Novgorod, Russia)

Rector of EMAS Business School

Business Trainer and consultant in Strategic Management (Corporate Strategy, Motivation, Leadership, Strategic Marketing, Organizational Culture) and Quick Response Manufacturing (QRM).

Best Business Trainer in 2014 according to the annual HR Awards “Employer of the Year”, Nizhny Novgorod, Russia

One of Top 3 Business Marketing Trainers in 2011 according to Belarusian Marketing Experts Association, 2011

Author of 2 books on Strategic Management & Marketing