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Motivating Staff to Top Performance: What They Really Want from Their Work

Posted by Louellen Essex on April 24, 2014 in Leadership, Performance Management, Team Development

Much has been written about rewarding and recognizing staff members for a job well done. While money, trinkets, and prizes – extrinsic motivators – have temporary “feel good” effects, real motivation occurs in a much different way. More powerful is the satisfaction inherent in doing the work itself ¬¬ – intrinsic motivation. Here is how this translates into leadership strategies that unlock staff drive to achieve their best work.

When we are good at something, typically, we are motivated to do more of the same because the success we feel becomes a reward in itself. Continual failure, mistakes, and lack of achievement make doing a task a more punishing experience. Leaders can stimulate the building of staff competency by matching individual talents and abilities to the tasks assigned. By playing to strengths, staff members are placed in roles where they can be successful more quickly. Leaders can also provide effective training opportunities, tailored to each individual’s unique needs, thereby building staff mastery of their work. Then, doing the work becomes more naturally satisfying. Being known as a master of one’s trade generates much valued recognition from others – an added bonus.

When we have freedom to perform some or all aspects of work in our own way, we begin to embrace more ownership in what we do. We feel trusted to do the right thing and valued to make more autonomous decisions. Leaders can reward staff who have established a good performance track record with more autonomy. Excess work direction and micromanagement can seem like negative consequences for a job well done when the leader holds on to the reins too long. By nurturing staff independence, leaders make the work itself a more gratifying experience.

Perhaps the strongest motivator of all is feeling that the work we do contributes to a greater good or purpose. Most us want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, making a contribution we believe is significant. While true of all generations, the Millennials (born 1977-1994) particularly want this from their work. Leaders can make this connection for their staff members by talking often and demonstrating with data and stories the positive impact the organization has on customers/clients/patients, the community, the environment, those in need, or the industry itself. Working on the front lines, staff can lose sight of how their piece of the workflow connects with the final outcome. Having a strong sense of pride in what they contribute to motivates staff to do more and do it well, knowing they make a difference.

While praise is technically a form of extrinsic motivation, coming from outside of the work itself, it becomes the frosting on the cake when added to competency, independence, and meaning. When a respected leader or colleague recognizes and comments on our accomplishments, we are motivated even more to continue the good work. We tend to do more of what we are positively reinforced for. Praise by citing specific examples of what was done well, showing staff members you are paying attention to their good work.

Spend less time thinking about what you can superimpose on the work to make staff more motivated. Think, instead, about making the work itself the reward. You’ll find those you lead perking up, energized to put more effort into excelling at their work.

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In these times of rapid change, leaders can never stop learning.”

Dr. Louellen Essex