The obligation of workplace leaders is (or should be) to motivate the workforce. Motivation comes in many forms across a spectrum from good to bad. I propose that all the way over on the good side is personal encouragement, and all the way over on the bad side is fear. I am not a social scientist nor an HR specialist, but for the sake of a good argument I will suggest that sliding along the spectrum from best to worst motivators are positive attention, reward, competition, social hierarchy, and condemnation.
Each can be powerfully effective motivators, but in defining what is good, I think the long-term effect should be weighted. Bad motivators may render faster results, such as leveraging someone’s job security against a short deadline. However, the result of that approach is likely resentment at best, and at worst, resignation.
Let’s stick to the good side. If someone has made an intentional decision to make an employee feel more positive and acknowledged, it is important to ponder the nuances of this endeavor. This is true in almost all relationships, including marriage and parenting. For this article, let’s focus on the employer-employee relationship.
Recognition is effective. After an employee has exceeded expectations with a superior performance, it is appropriate to specially recognize that person as related to that effort. Likewise, if an employee has a long tenure, the proverbial gold watch treatment is a nice touch. However, this type of reward-based motivation is transactional in nature, thus not of the highest quality.
Positive attention is arguably more effective. At bare minimum, the “I’m the boss, and I’m not totally ignoring you” approach, as compared to a boss who has nothing to do with “underlings,” is a fantastic step toward making employees feel acknowledged, which results in higher workplace motivation. Beyond that, when a boss engages with an employee about his or her family, for example – especially if he or she knows their names – this communicates to the employee in a deep way that “you matter.” It may seem too simple, but feeling like “you matter” goes a long way to truly motivate someone with lasting effects.
When it comes to the greatest motivator, personal encouragement stands alone. I believe authentic encouragement is like motivational jet fuel because, generally speaking, most people are absolutely starving for it. True encouragement in this context is a close, personal interaction that affirms that the leader is paying attention to not just the employee, but also to the substance of the employee’s plight, which is a very intimate undertaking. It isn’t contingent on a particular positive outcome or performance. In fact, it is likely most effective when the recipient is struggling. When practiced effectively, it can affect the trajectory of an employee for the rest of his or her career. The challenge is that it requires a leader with high emotional intelligence.
Imagine someone who is reliable and hardworking, and for reasons not readily apparent, he or she is having difficulty. It may be the inherent challenge of the work, or it may be completely personal, such as family problems or even job burnout. Imagine you, as a leader, pick up on it and engage with the employee, offering personal encouragement that doesn’t require a particular advance outcome. You lean in and simply say, “I’m really glad you’re here. This may be difficult, but I have faith in you. You’re a talented person, and I know you have what it takes.”
Personal encouragement, administered authentically, is injected straight into the heart. It is simple, but not easy, and it is the greatest long-term motivator.