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Motivating Employees

(April 2006) posted on Wed May 24, 2006

Review the basic principles of motivation and discover how you can use them to give your staff pride and ownership in their work.


By Gordon Roberts

"If capable, well-trained people are placed in a setting with clear expectations, minimal task interference, reinforcing consequences, and appropriate feedback, then they will be motivated."
—Geary Rummler and Alan Brache (1990)

Those who grew up as managers in the latter part of the twentieth century remember that just about every week somebody introduced a "how to" business-management book that took the manufacturing world by storm. One week it was statistical process control that supposedly would save us from ruin. The next week it was total quality management.

As a long-suffering middle manager then, I read the books ravenously and tried to apply whatever truths I learned to the workplace, with varying levels of success and failure. Each book had a different take on old management themes. Even though I learned something useful from nearly all of the books, there was no single method that translated directly to my own little world of screen-printing responsibilities.

Some books concentrated on the mechanics of the workplace, while others expounded on the deep sociological mechanisms that come into play when workers interact on the shop floor. Many were lively and enjoyable reads, and some were desperately boring. However, I persevered in the hope that one day I would find the perfect literary lens that would bring the whole process into sharp focus. I regret to tell you that I never did find the management bible. But I did find quite a few books that spent a lot of time explaining how to motivate my employees. Apparently with the right motivation, my employees would become more productive and the quality and profitability of our products would improve. Motivation seemed like a good idea, and it surely was less expensive than the new press that we were considering.

Motivational tools

The old-fashioned view of motivation in the workplace says the paycheck is the major factor that brings employees back into the shop every workday. However, studies have shown that once a worker accepts a job, the paycheck ceases to be a factor. Obviously, the carrot swinging at the end of the pay period does not go unnoticed, but most workers only think about it seriously when it's time for a raise or during financial stress.

If you rely on the paycheck to motivate employees, you had better pay them well. Otherwise, expect them to jump ship as soon as they have the necessary marketable skills to move on. Employees are inspired far more by a well-run, less-stressful, friendly workplace than they are by their paychecks. They are likely to be more productive and more loyal to a company that provides a great working environment and benefits that go beyond a fair wage.

Let's take another look at the quote at the beginning of this column and single out some of the points that make this particular statement so true. We'll start with finding the right people for the job.

Capable, well-trained employees

Before people can become well-trained, they must be trainable in the first place. During the hiring process, make sure that you consider people who have the potential to become highly motivated employees. Look around in the industry and you will see that many of your colleagues in management started out at the bottom.

Even if you hire someone to man the end of a conveyor belt, look for a spark of ambition in that person. Tell new hires that they are joining an industry where people are recognized for their hard work and aspirations. Then offer training that will ultimately provide them with more responsibility and more job security. These actions really motivate new employees and keep seasoned employees interested.

Clear expectations

Be straightforward, honest, and realistic with your employees. Always let them know what your goals are for them. Make them aware of the bigger picture and exactly where they fit. Don't leave employees wondering what is expected of them. It is your responsibility to be clear in what you expect and to make it possible for them to achieve their objectives.

According to a recent article in my local newspaper, the happiest workers in America are UPS drivers. Why? They know exactly what they have to achieve each day, they have the tools to help them complete these tasks, and they're left alone to do their jobs. If managers can bring this kind of clarity to the tasks at hand in their print shops, they also can generate this kind of job satisfaction.

Minimal task interference

This is a difficult one for the average manager to accept. If you've trained your employees correctly, you should be able to leave them alone and allow them to do what they do best. Let your workers learn from their own mistakeswithin reason. You'll be surprised how much things improve when you stand back and allow people to make their own decisions.

Reinforcing consequences

Your employees must recognize that they are as responsible as you are for the quality of work they produce. Positive trends should be recognized, and negative trends should be discussed and dealt with in a professional manner. Don't unload on your workers when things go wrong. Instead, figure out ways to let them develop their own problem-solving skills.

Appropriate feedback

Encourage your employees to think about ways to improve what they do. Involve them in the nuts and bolts of their particular tasks and you will be surprised at the innovations they come up with. Make sure everyone understands that your decision will be final, but keep in mind that you could miss an important resource if you neglect to listen to the people actually doing the job.

I have listened to many great motivational speakers over the years, and I have read many books and articles on the subject of better workplace management. These resources often leave you with a great desire to jump in and try new things. They also wind you up with new energy and enthusiasm for your role as manager or supervisor. This is a good thing, and it usually lasts until the realities of your working life return you to reality with a bump.

True motivation comes from implementing a process that takes into account more than just the weekly production figures. Motivated employees are involved every day in the decisions and the practicalities of their jobs. They understand what is expected of them. They are allowed to do their job without constant management interference. And they are confident that if they offer input, their colleagues will carefully consider it in a professional and understanding manner. I firmly believe that these things, coupled with an honest day's pay for an honest day's work, will produce the motivation needed to take you and your workforce to the next level.

Here's a final piece of advice from somebody who has read all the "How To" books: Don't get caught up in your enthusiasm and start believing everything that you read! Carefully select the ideas that work for you, and implement them gradually.

I once worked for a boss who seemed to come up with a new strategy every couple of months, and we were expected to embrace the new strategies as enthusiastically as he did. After going through these changes and upheavals a few times, I began to recognize them for what they were. The next time I saw a new motivational business text poking out of his briefcase, I did some soul searching and discovered that I was strangely motivated to start looking for another job.


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