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Beyond the ‘Carrot vs. Stick’ Approach: Three Ways to Keep Your Employees Motivated

Aiming for sustained motivation? You’re going to need more than just gift certificates

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BY Tanya Mariano - 05 Jul 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Every leader wants a highly motivated team. But keeping your employees driven is no easy task. Often leaders are encouraged to use an outdated "carrot versus stick approach," where compliance is rewarded with a "carrot", while non-compliance is punished by a "stick", writes Lisa Lai in Harvard Business Review.

Lai, a business advisor, consultant, and coach, cautions against this approach and argues that motivation is less about doing great work and more about feeling great about the work itself.

"The better employees feel about their work, the more motivated they remain over time," she says.

Here are a few things that make employees more likely to be motivated for longer periods of time.

1. When they feel their work is relevant

Doing relevant, impactful work—one that's not just about the money—is a strong employee motivator. As a leader, you can help your team see that their work matters by giving them a better view of the context in which their tasks are situated, says Lai.

This is particularly crucial when dealing with millennial employees. In this Inc. Southeast Asia article about how to motivate millennial employees, Anj Vera, CEO of Philippine-based employer branding firm TalentView, says “six out of 10 millennials prefer a sense of purpose when considering a job opportunity.”

Ashwin Jeyapalasingam, COO and co-founder of Malaysia-based ticket booking platform CatchThatBus, would agree. In a previous interview, he tells Inc. Southeast Asia: “[M]onetary compensation does very little in terms of retention of staff, especially young millennials. If the staff no longer feel motivated by what the company is doing, very few will stay just because of the money.”

2. When they're appreciated

“Employees are motivated when they feel appreciated and recognized for their contributions,” writes Lai. When it comes to sustaining motivation, it seems “carrots”—monetary rewards, various perks—are less powerful than an explicit acknowledgement of a job well done.

One way to do this is through “recognition rituals”, as workplace-as-a-service platform Convene does. President and co-founder Christopher Kelly tells Inc. that all management and executive meetings start off with each department lead recognizing an employee for exceptional work. “This positive feedback loop motivates team members, and it holds management accountable for staff recognition,” he says.

3. When their leaders are motivated, too

If you, as a boss, aren't enthusiastic about your work, your team, and your company, Lai says it's unlikely that you'll be a great motivator.

She recommends assessing your own level of motivation by asking yourself the following questions: “What aspects of your role do you enjoy? What makes you proud to lead your team? What impact can you and your team have on others both inside and outside the organization? How can you adapt your role to increase your energy and enthusiasm?”

By becoming more driven yourself, you become a better role model and, consequently, a more effective motivator.