A Guide to Motivating Employees

Motivating employees means involving them in decisions, communicating about a job well-done and having some fun.
May 09, 2012

Walk around the office of Dixon Schwabl in Victor, New York, and you'll see countless paper notes tacked inside the employees' cubicles. Each handwritten piece of paper from founder Lauren Dixon complimenting them on specific ways they have done a good job are a point of pride for the employees.

“The biggest complaint most employees have is that they don’t feel valued,” Dixon says. “I write these notes every Friday and it really keeps motivation high in the office.”

Employee motivation is a major focus for Dixon, whose integrated marketing company has more than 80 employees.

After she launched her firm in 1987, she quickly implemented a few cultural policies that keep office spirit high. She keeps the door to her office open, holds ice cream Thursdays on the office’s back patio and gets people together for bring-your-own-lunch Wednesdays. A functional spiral slide connects the office floors, adding to the fun office atmosphere.

To gather some employee motivation tips for small-business owners, I talked with Dixon and Ann Rhoades, co-founder of JetBlue Airways. Rhoades is the author of Built on Values: Creating an Enviable Culture That Outperforms the Competition.

Focus on Hiring

Dixon recommends only hiring people who exhibit a high level of self-motivation during the interview process. Zeroing in on those individuals right off the bat helps save training time later, she says.

Looking for a second secretary? Involve the current secretary in the hiring process, Rhoades suggests. Without you even asking, the veteran employee will take on a training role.

Do Little Things

After a recent internal survey on employee satisfaction, Dixon was shocked to learn that her employees were less excited by profit-sharing opportunities than the weekly ice cream breaks—by a 78 percent margin.

“Not everyone is motivated by money,” she says. “Doing things that don't cost a lot of money, that add to the overall atmosphere of the office, really matter to employees.”

Pay for Performance

Forget yearly pay increases. Rhoades suggests rewarding people according to their performance. Employees want to know that they did a good job, even if the pay increase is incremental, she says. Paying for performance will give staffers something to strive for.

Share Numbers

Do you share your sales goals with employees? This kind of information is vital for increased employee motivation, Rhoades says. She recommends explaining the four or five indicators that are important to the store's success on the first day.

“Trust me, they will be so engaged,” she says.

But what if your employees are part of the millennial generation? The stereotype of employees in their late teens or early to mid-20s is that they have lackluster motivation. Rhoades maintains that employees at all levels appreciate responsibility and that young people stay motivated, as long as you convey a goal.

Involve Employees in Major Decisions

If you are trying to decide whether to cut bonuses or healthcare premiums, call a company meeting and vote on it, Rhoades suggests. Not only will employees appreciate having a say in the process, they will most likely be more agreeable with the final decision.


Rhoades knows small-business owners are busy, so she recommends setting calendar slots for talking with employees. Dixon does this by scheduling breakfast or lunch with a different employee up to three times a week.

Don't Kill Motivation

Regular feedback is crucial to high levels of employee motivation. The earlier and more honest, the better, Rhoades says.

Another tip: Don’t use fear as a motivator.

“If you are always telling employees that we are in bad economic times and you aren’t sure if the company is going to make it unless they reach certain numbers," says Rhoades, "that won’t motivate anyone.”

How do you motivate your employees?

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