5 Powerful Employee Motivation Strategies (That Aren’t Money)

“If only you could just throw money at the problem, and it would go away forever.” Putting it this way makes it clear that money doesn’t solve everything, especially not when it comes to employee motivation. Yet, that’s the premise that so much of the corporate world is still operating on. Financial compensation alone isn’t enough to motivate employees, but that often constitutes the basis of so many employee motivation strategies.


It’s a scientifically proven fact that monetary incentives don’t provide a sufficient source of motivation when it comes to knowledge work. According to an MIT study by behavioural economist Dan Ariely, financial incentives actually worked against motivation for tasks that called for even rudimentary use of cognitive skills.

The conundrum of employee motivation is especially dire here in Singapore. A 2018 study by Aon, for example, showed that only about 1 in 2 full-time millennial Singaporeans are engaged at work.


So if money isn’t enough, what does work? Here are five other effective employee motivation strategies the best managers use to motivate their people.

P.S. Harness your employees’ full potential; supercharge workplace motivation and engagement levels with SSA Academy’s WSQ course on leading workplace communication and engagement!


1. Coaching

There’s no substitute for the sheer influence that a strong employee-manager relationship can bring. Managers need to invest their time and energy towards cultivating personal relationships with their people and show that they care for them as employees and as people. The strength of these relationships facilitates effective coaching, which, according to Google’s Project Oxygen, is one of the top 10 characteristics of effective managers.


Among other things, motivational managers who successfully coach their people are often:

  • Good empathisers who understand that different employees have different core motivations
  • Active listeners; they practice open-door policies and check in regularly

Read more about effective leadership habits of motivational managers here.


2. Boosting employee self-efficacy

Psychological research has proven that the more confident people feel in their ability to excel at a given task or master a specific skill, the more motivated they were.

It is, essentially, a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think that you have the necessary expertise to excel at a particular task, you’ll be more motivated to see it through to the end. Conversely, if you don’t think you have the requisite skill or knowledge level, you’ll be less motivated.


Managers can improve self-efficacy by:

  • Providing strengths-based training: identify each person’s greatest strengths, and boost these further by sending them for targeted training
  • Facilitating the psychological state of “flow” (a state where people are in the zone and thus more motivated) by giving stretch assignments that are difficult but not overwhelming
  • Providing good strengths-task fit so that people have the opportunity to utilise their strengths at work. Research has shown that this is a strong motivator; the more people feel like they’re in their element, the more motivated they tend to be.


3. Providing more autonomy

According to New York Times bestselling author Daniel Pink, autonomy is one of the key elements of motivation. When people feel a greater sense of control over their work, they also tend to feel a greater sense of ownership and are thus motivated to perform and even overdeliver.


Indeed, employee autonomy is a huge part of what lies behind the success of the biggest companies in the world, including Facebook, Google, and even 3M. These companies introduced policies that gave employees the freedom to organise together to self-initiate and execute projects which they thought would be beneficial for the company.


4. Connecting employees with purpose

Having a strong sense of purpose to the work that you do makes you more motivated to do it well. Most people, though, unconsciously harbour a few misconceptions of what makes work meaningful.


You don’t, for instance, need to work at a charity or in the social service sector to be in a position to do meaningful work. It’s also unrelated to your rank. Though a sense of purpose might be more apparent in certain industries, positions, or jobs, it’s also possible to derive it in just about any kind of work.

Wharton professor Adam Grant, for example, proved that when people were given a chance to interact with the beneficiaries of their work, they reported feeling a stronger sense of purpose. This, in turn, translates into higher employee motivation.


5. Giving employees recognition where it’s due

Making your employees feel valued and recognised for the work they do is one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways that managers can motivate people. Too many leaders don’t give enough credit when it’s due for a variety of reasons, most commonly because “it’s their job.”

It doesn’t necessarily have to come with lots of fanfare; sometimes, it can be as simple as writing a thank-you note. For instance, take Doug Conant, former CEO of Campbell Soup; he wrote more than 30 000 personalised thank-you notes to his employees, commending them for the work they did.


It’s important to note that when giving credit or praising employees, managers have to be specific about what they do. Human psychology dictates that when you reward someone for a particular action, they’ll associate that action with the reward. Henceforth, they’ll keep repeating it.

That’s how positive reinforcement works. If, however, a manager fails to specify exactly what was so praiseworthy about the act, the effect is lost.


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