How to Inspire Employees When More Money Isn't an Option?


Bob Dylan said the times, they are a changing. And while his prophetic language wasn’t referencing employee morale, it’s certainly applicable in today’s job market. Employee longevity is a thing of the past; the average person changes jobs 10 to 15 times, averaging around 12 jobs during his or her career. And many workers spend five years or less in each job, so a great deal of time and energy is devoted to job transitioning. In January 2016 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the average employee tenure was 4.2 years, down from 4.6 years in January 2014.

So how do you retain good employees if it’s not about money? There are endless ideas on showing appreciation without breaking the bank, and we’ll get to them later in this article. However, to create an emotional commitment between employee and job, it goes deeper than pizza lunches or celebrating employee birthdays (both of which are good things to do). It requires understanding the necessity of creating an environment of open communication, of discussing mutual goals and working to understand what drives and excites people on an individual basis, instead of focusing on what the employee is doing for you. And if this sounds counterproductive to running a profitable business, think about engagement. If people are committed to what they’re doing because they believe in it, see it as enhancing their future and are challenged to be their best at it, then they drive the focus, creativity and climate; it’s about their future as well as yours.

As an example, people are more likely to switch from larger to smaller companies because they see the work more challenging and they feel they can make more of an impact in what they do. Think about it, typically in smaller companies there is more autonomy, more say in the day-to-day operations, and that freedom of choice is often worth more than cash!

Think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Once someone has all the basic needs met then the focus leans toward self-esteem and self-actualization, and those two needs aren’t met by a bonus or salary increase most of the time. Granted money is always a sweetener, but if we’re seriously looking at how to keep employees happy when money isn’t available, or you don’t want to continually use money as the motivator, then we need to think about what self actualization means to the average employee.

Of course, if you asked 20 people milling around Celebration Pointe what self actualization means to them, you’d probably get 20 different answers. You might hear comments such as…being the best version of themselves, feeling pride in accomplishments, having a say in their work, making a difference in what they do, having diverse and interesting responsibilities, working with integrity, feeling challenged and taking pride in solving problems. Having conversations that encompass those needs is a great way to start building emotional credits, creating an environment where people feel there is real growth, opportunity and a genuine reason for staying.

In a recent survey of more than 10,000 people on what they wanted in a job, the top response was career progression. Which means talking to employees about their career goals and jointly mapping out targets to aim for that encompass what the company’s and the individual’s future vision looks like. People love to feel they are part of something that makes a difference, and when employees are allowed to pick a project or cause, it also helps to anchor this feeling of pride, even if it’s not directly tied to the job description.

Open communication is another crucial element in building an environment where employees want to stay around and continue to grow with the company instead of using the company as a stepping stone to the next job. And vibrant, healthy communication, which leads to an environment of trust, is definitely not the norm. A Watson Wyatt study found that companies with effective communication practices can have up to 50% less company turnover. Allowing employees to feel safe in disagreeing or challenging ideas continually strengthens a climate of trust, which in turn nurtures growth.

And what about all those little things? They are highly effective for one reason, they indicate the company cares. Whether it’s an organized sports team at work, a potluck or pizza lunch or something entirely different, the message indicates an employer appreciates the employees. The list of small, thoughtful things that can be done is limitless, and can include bringing pets to work for a day, celebrating birthdays, company picnic, allowing people to leave early on summer Fridays, offering flex time, and many, many other perks depending on the interests and needs of the employees. Get them involved in what they want to do; it will ultimately mean more that they came up with the idea.

And appreciation can also never be overlooked, just saying thank you or telling someone how much you appreciate his or her efforts. According to author Mike Robbins, appreciation is one of the most powerful aspects of successfully motivating and empowering people and teams; putting attention on what is working helps everyone thrive.

Perhaps the best way to look at inspiring employees circles back to that longevity perspective we talked about earlier. If we are interested in the short term, then continually doling out bonuses or gift cards will make people stay, for a while. Yet when we dig deeper and understand what employees want, then it’s possible to create a unified vision where everyone feels a part of the success, and enjoys being around for the long term, whatever that may be.

By Jennifer Webb

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