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Improving Employee Morale and Motivation

Filed under Managing the Workplace. Fact checked on May 24, 2012.

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Whether you've determined that your business has an employee morale issue or you want to up your employees' motivation, there are several excellent ways to increase morale and motivation without incurring high costs.

Low employee morale can adversely affect your ability to attract and retain the best employees and have a detrimental effect on productivity. Maybe you suspect that you may have a problem with low morale because employees are exhibiting signs of low morale or because a survey that you've done of your employees indicates it. If this is the case, you need to determine which aspects of your workplace are creating the dissatisfaction with the job and find ways to remedy them.

Even if you don't have a low morale problem, you may want to jump-start your workforce into higher levels of productivity. Being proactive in this area makes good business sense.

So whether your employees are disgruntled or not, you should check out these strategies to see how you can make their work lives more satisfying and productive:

  • building employees' involvement in the business
  • building employees' self-esteem
  • recognizing and rewarding employees

Building Employees' Involvement

Every employer's dream is to have employees who care as deeply for the success of the business as they would if the business were their own. While you may never get employees to care that much, you can build a sense that what's good for the business is good for them. Here are some steps to building that type of commitment and involvement:

  • Identify any problems that might stand in the way. Again, the types of problems that lead to absenteeism, turnover, and generally low morale will be barriers to developing the type of commitment to the business that you're seeking.
  • Share your vision and the mission of the business. As the leader, you need to have some goals for the business. If your goal is to have the best reputation for customer service, for example, employees know what to strive for and have a goal. Getting them involved creates ownership of the business's vision. If employees understand why the goal is important, they will feel personally responsible for making it a success.
  • Give some power to employees. If you want employees to care, you have to give them some responsibility and some decision-making latitude. Employees have to believe that the decisions they make and the work they perform has a direct impact on the product or service you provide. This may be easier to achieve and demonstrate in a small business than it would be in a larger one.
  • Encourage risk-taking. Let employees experiment and try to find new ways to help the business reach its goals. Don't create a culture where employees are afraid to try anything new because if they fail they will be punished. Allow a certain amount of failure, and reward people for trying.
  • Use reward systems. When your employees do well, reward them. Tailor your reward systems to specific accomplishments. If you have one employee who sells 25 percent more than everyone else, but everyone gets the same bonus, your star sales rep. isn't going to be particularly motivated to excel in the future.
  • Plan social and athletic activities. These types of activities allow people to interact with each other on a level that can build stronger professional bonds. If your business is small, perhaps just an annual dinner or picnic somewhere is enough. If you have several employees with a similar hobby or athletic interest, maybe your business can sponsor a team in a local league.
Warning

Be sure to protect yourself from workers' compensation liability by making the event completely voluntary. Also arrange for the event to take place on non-work hours. If you have questions about whether a particular event will expose your business to liability, consult an attorney.

Building Employees' Self-Esteem

Many people believe that work performance is a reflection of how employees feel about themselves and their work. If an employee is proud of the job that he or she does, the work quality will reflect that. Employees who have bad self-images are more likely to exhibit those negative feelings in their work.

So, how can you boost employees' self-esteem? There are an infinite number of ways, depending on the employee and the means at your disposal. Some ways are as simple as recognition; a simple thank you or a reward for a job well done. This can be particularly gratifying for an employee with a behind-the-scenes job.

Other ways to help build employee self-esteem are:

  • Sponsor employees in weight control or fitness programs.
  • Pay for employees to attend public speaking or other professional development classes.
  • Pay for employees to learn about personal financial planning, either through classes or literature.
  • Ask employees to teach you and other employees a skill or procedure that they do well (this has the added bonus of doubling as cross-training of the staff).
  • Recognize successes, both personal and professional, such as an employee completing her graduate degree or an employee earning his black belt in martial arts.

Recognizing and Rewarding Employees

Everybody likes to have his or her achievements recognized by others. Even though personal satisfaction will come from meeting a predetermined goal, it is always more meaningful if someone else is there to share the success.

Workers are usually not averse to putting out an extra effort when the business needs help in overcoming a problem or meeting a production deadline. But if the extra effort goes unnoticed, employees will wonder why they should bother. A moment or two from you to thank the employee and emphasize how that employee's efforts have helped will cost nothing and will go a long way toward increasing the employee's self-esteem and motivation. And sometimes, something more is required, which is why you may want to implement some sort of recognition and reward program.

In devising your recognition and reward program, you should consider what type of behavior to recognize and what to give as and how to present a reward.

When to Recognize and Reward

There are no hard and fast rules about when or what types of occasions merit special recognition. Some of the more common reasons for recognition and reward are:

  • length of service (usually landmark anniversaries; for example, five years of service)
  • retirement
  • safety (usually more common in manufacturing businesses, this includes recognition for achieving a certain number of days without an on-the-job injury)
  • attendance (six months or a year without an absence is the typically rewarded goal)
  • productivity
  • customer service
  • superior performance awards (usually for outstanding effort and achievement on a specific project)
  • employee-of-the-month programs

What Rewards Can You Give?

Typical rewards given in conjunction with employee recognition are:

  • certificates
  • plaques
  • trophies or ribbons
  • jewelry (pins, pendants)
  • pens or desk accessories
  • watches and clocks
  • cash bonuses
  • tickets to sporting or cultural events
  • vacation trips

Recognition on a shoestring budget. Even if your small business can't afford to go all out due to budget constraints, recognition is one case where the thought does count. If you can't afford something expensive, consider a nice card and a gift certificate to a restaurant. Or, consider taking the employee to lunch or just having an informal "thank you" party with cake for the employee or group of employees you want to reward.

Here are some other more inexpensive forms of recognition suggested by Rosalind Jeffries and Kathryn Wall, in "Recognition Secrets: A Succinct System for Organizational Success," Best of America HR Conference & Expo, Tampa, Florida, February 11, 1991:

  • Write personal notes to employees. Jot down a message to one of your employees, recognizing him or her for better performance on the job, or write a thank you note to an employee for putting in extra time in the workplace. Use your personal stationery.
  • Create a "year in review" booklet. Have a year-in-review booklet with pictures or a celebration highlighting your employees' proudest achievements of the year.
  • Give courtesy time off. Grant employees an afternoon off, or even a day or two of leave for special, personal events in their lives.
  • Give credit when credit is due. Remember to give credit to those who have introduced great ideas and completed special projects.
  • Put up a bulletin board. Construct a bulletin board at your place of business to recognize employees through letters, memos, pictures, thank you cards, and other methods.
  • Have a "Friday surprise." Surprise your staff with something nice on Friday, recognizing them for working hard or just hanging in there.
  • Get a traveling trophy. Establish a trophy that goes each month to the employee exhibiting the greatest overall performance — behaviors and results — in the business.
Tip

You don't want to give awards out every day or else they will lose their meaning. Be especially careful not to give them to everyone, but only to those people whose work really stands out. Giving out awards just to give them out has the opposite effect. Use them sparingly and when deserved.

Presenting Employee Rewards and Recognition

How you present your reward and recognition is almost as important as what you recognize and, arguably, more important than what you give as a reward. If in giving the best reward you can afford for a special occasion you simply drop the award off on the employee's desk while mumbling a "thank you" on the way out the door, you've wasted your money and may even have done more harm than good.

Recognition that means anything is given with sincerity and thoughtfulness. It must be treated as special, because that's what it is. It should not be treated as some necessary evil. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right. Recognizing an employee is not an end in and of itself. It's a means to an end — making the employee feel valued and reinforcing desirable behavior.

Tip

Recognize that the way in which praise is delivered may not always produce the results hoped for. Some employees are shy and may feel self-conscious about a big show of appreciation. Be sure to take the employee's feelings into account in planning a celebration or other observation.

Generally if something is worth recognizing, it is worth publicizing. So, unless you have an employee who is extremely shy and introverted, a little celebration is a good way to bestow recognition, whether it takes the form of a plaque, a bonus, a certificate, or just some words of praise and a "thank you."

Some suggested ways to bestow recognition are:

  • Bring pastries and coffee, and make the presentation during a special morning break.
  • Set aside some time at a regularly scheduled (weekly, monthly, yearly) meeting to recognize achievements.
  • For more formal presentations, you can have a dinner.

If the employee is shy and likely to feel uncomfortable, you may choose to send an email message or a memo publicizing the achievements of the employee instead of having an in-person gathering.

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