What motivates each of us to do better? I confess, I play Words with Friends compulsively. I swear I’m motivated by the intellectual challenge and the opportunity to occasionally best some of my really smart friends at the Scrabble-type game. Psychologists would probably tell you otherwise. They would say that I am influenced, albeit subconsciously, by the constant badges and awards I earn when I play a high-scoring word. We’re all motivated by elements obvious and elements subtle. What drives you at work? Moreover, if you lead a team, how do you keep them motivated?
Motivation at work comes from two sources – external factors and internal factors. Managers need to acknowledge the importance of both, but how do you keep employees engaged when you have little to no control over one of those factors?
External factors include things like salary, health benefits and physical working environment. Most line managers have little-to-no ability to impact these elements. We can all learn from those leaders who have to find creative ways to motivate their teams.
Internal factors are where Marc Berger lives. Berger is the New York regional director for the SEC. He notes, “In the public sector, the pay is different and the promotional opportunities are limited.”
David Peavler, Marc’s counterpart for the SEC’s Fort Worth Region, highlights, “It’s even tougher in the smaller offices. You just don’t have the opportunity to reward people with as many advanced positions.”
“We both work with incredibly talented and dedicated professionals,” Berger notes. “We need to be creative in the way we reward people for their dedication and contribution.”
Both Berger and Peavler mindfully tap into these internal factors, including: impact, recognition and challenging and interesting work, to create growth opportunities for their employees.
Whether it’s balancing the P&L, closing the deal with a new client or, in my case, finding a five-letter word that ends in “Q” on a triple letter score space, we’re all achievement junkies to some extent.
Berger notes, “Government work is very fulfilling because you feel like you’re solving a problem and addressing an important need. The work we do is a motivating factor in and of itself.”
Peavler adds, “The nature of the work fuels the people involved. They feel like they’re fighting the good fight.”
Whether you’re in the public or private sector, the message is the same: developing people and putting them in situations where they can make a difference is a key to keeping them motivated. If someone’s not performing well, no motivation program is going to change their overall level of happiness. Once people have an impact on clients, customers or the organization, you can further motivate them by making sure their success is recognized.
Most people respond well to being recognized for their achievements. In 2019, the Mary Kay Cosmetic Company celebrated the 50th year of awarding its top salespeople pink Cadillacs. At professional services firms, the corner office isn’t just prime real estate because of the broader views – it’s the outward sign of substantial achievement. Regardless of the setting, recognizing the achievements of others is a crucial part of motivating your team. Many people don’t need huge accolades, and recognition doesn’t always have to cost a lot.
Even within the dictates of the federal government’s compensation protocol, Berger found a way to reward high performers.
“I needed to reward hard work and contribution, but there were limited promotional paths forward for some people as they advanced in my office,” Berger noted. “So I created a new opportunity, the ‘counsel to the regional director’ role.” Professionals on his team are selected to rotate through the role for four months at a time, receiving slightly higher compensation for those months. “Arguably a more important reward than the extra money is the opportunity to learn how the agency functions on a broader basis, which gives them added insight into decision-making when they return to their regular roles.
“As a leader, you have to make these opportunities happen because they don’t always occur naturally,” Peavler said. “We find opportunities to recognize high performers in a meaningful way, such as by having them lead important internal initiatives or speak on the agency’s behalf at industry or public events. And sometimes it’s as simple as giving someone an extra day off or more flexibility in their schedule, things that don’t necessarily cost the organization a great deal but mean a lot to the employee.”
Every few Words with Friends games, I download a bucket of rewards that earn me points I can use as currency to buy advantages in the game and badges that give me an encouraging cyberspace pat on the back. And at my firm, the last agenda item at every staff meeting is “Applause, Applause,” where people have the chance to publicly acknowledge someone who has gone above and beyond for them or the group in the last month. The recognition is always appreciated by the recipient, creates a supportive work culture and ends the meeting on a high note.
Challenging & Interesting Work
Having a career means more than holding a job. In a career, we’re looking for advancement and an opportunity for growth. We want to keep getting better at what we’re doing. In between promotions there may be long stretches when we’re doing the same job repeatedly. How do you keep someone who’s in that phase motivated to bring their best self to the task every day? One way is to provide options for growth through challenging and interesting work. Adding a new component to someone’s role keeps the job from becoming stale.
At the SEC, Berger found a variety of ways to accomplish this. “I try to identify cutting edge investigative work or a novel examination approach and then have that team present the matter to their colleagues at staff-wide meetings. This allows them to share their expertise and techniques with others, while they develop their presentation and communication skills in front of large audiences,” Berger noted.
Peavler added, “While I usually can’t offer the same perks available to the private sector, I can honor someone’s accomplishments by assigning them challenging or high-profile cases or examinations, encouraging them to become experts on important industry subjects and giving them opportunities to mentor others and be mentored by senior staff.
He added, “All of these elements gave me some options for recognizing the team’s hard work and dedication and gave them a growth opportunity. The exposure to new opportunities and experiences gave them a differentiator for their resumes.”
Companies, especially large, publicly traded companies, are supposed to be driven by maximizing share value. Yet many seem equally driven to make the list of “Best Places to Work” and the like. Organizations large and small increasingly leverage team motivation and individual engagement to drive performance. To keep your team motivated to perform at their best for you and the organization, consider the individuals’ internal motivating factors.
- Find ways to make them successful
- Celebrate those successes
- Look for low-cost ways to keep their job challenging and engaging
Finally, if you know any six letter words that include an “X” and a “Z” let me know. I’m 40 points behind and really need a win.
Originally published on Forbes.com.