Motivating and bringing out the best in your employees

By Azaria Beukes

Talented people do not want to be told what to do; they want to interact in small intimate groups, they want feedback and challenging projects, they want time to work on their creative ideas, they want a genuine effort to promote improved personal life, they want a cool place to work in, and they want food.(Cook, 2012).

Introduction: Know what motivates your employees

Motivational theories provide a solid foundation for developing, engaging, rewarding, motivating and ultimately bringing out the best in your employees. Google is a perfect example of a company keeping employees happy by aligning the rewards they offer to their employees’ needs. There are three main motivational theories worth exploring (Cook, 2012):

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

This is a well-known motivational theory that describes the following hierarchy of needs: Psychological (most basic), safety and security, love and belonging, self-esteem and self-actualisation (most complex). Progression through each level (in the order provided) is necessary to reach a state of self-actualisation. Based on this theory, an employee’s perception of a certain reward is influenced by their position on this hierarchy. For instance, an employee who has not yet satisfied their psychological or safety needs may perceive an increase as a suitable reward for overtime and hard work. Whereas an individual driven by their need for love and belonging, might prefer time off to spend with their loved ones.

Hertzberg’s Two-factor Theory

Hertzberg distinguishes between two motivational factors: hygiene factors and motivators. Hygiene factors are extrinsic motivators and refer to rewards linked to salary, work conditions and company policies. Motivators on the other hand are intrinsic and include a need for more responsibility, rewards for achievement and opportunities to grow. It is important to obtain a healthy balance between extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. A fair salary and favourable working conditions may form a solid foundation to motivate employees, but are not necessarily enough to keep them motivated.

McClelland’s Theory of Motivation

McClelland’s theory of motivation distinguishes between three types of needs: A need for achievement (i.e. to excel), a need for affiliation (i.e. a desire for close relationships at work) and a need for power (i.e. a need to have control over others). Knowledge about these intrinsic needs can be used to decide who should be assigned to which projects. For instance, an employee with a strong need for affiliation could be given the opportunity to work in a team whereas an employee with a need for power will feel more motivated when leading that team.

Empower and engage employees

In a dynamic world of work where things constantly change, the psychological empowerment of employees becomes important to ensure that talented individuals are retained. Psychological empowerment is “an individual’s experience of intrinsic motivation that is based on cognitions about himself or herself in relation to his or her work role.” (Stander and Rothmann, 2010).

Studies have shown that psychologically empowered employees feel more engaged at work. This is important because “engaged employees have a sense of energetic and affective connection with their work activities and see themselves as able to deal completely with the demands of their jobs” (Stander and Rothmann, 2010). Psychologically empowered employees will also be more likely to:

  • Stay with the company.
  • Recommend the company to potential clients and / or employees.
  • Adopt a self-management style.
  • Experience a feeling of professional development.
  • Feel more satisfied at work.

To empower employees and foster a culture of high engagement, there are four kinds of intrinsic rewards to consider (Stander & Rothmann, 2010; Thomas, 2009):

A sense of meaningfulness

Employees will experience a sense of meaningfulness when they feel that they are doing something that is worth their time and energy. A strong sense of purpose and direction will develop if they perceive their contribution or accomplishments to be meaningful.

A sense of choice

This reward involves the freedom employees have to decide on the tasks they will be working on and also the way of completing those tasks. As a result, work goals are internalised and employees take ownership of the work they do. Because employees feel responsible for making it work they will also be more likely to find innovative ways to complete tasks.

A sense of competence

This reward involves employees’ confidence in their ability to handle work activities. They will feel like they are delivering high quality work and they will be proud of it. Employees will experience a sense of competence if they are provided the opportunity to gain the required knowledge, receive positive feedback and work on challenging projects.

A sense of progress

Employees will experience a sense of progress if they feel like they are moving in the right direction and working towards a specific target. A sense of progress will lead to higher energy levels and a general feeling of accomplishment. Employees who feel that they are making progress may also be more likely to feel that their contribution is making a difference (sense of meaningfulness).

The satisfaction of the four levels of intrinsic rewards is important to ensure self-management and engagement amongst employees. If one of these reward levels is low, it brings down the overall level of employee engagement. Reward levels of employees can be evaluated by having discussions with them and possibly administering a questionnaire like The Work Engagement Profile.

Reveal the mountain top

Top management often discusses and decides on the strategic direction of the company. They dream big and devise plans to make those dreams a reality. Employees are often unaware of these plans. They come to work with their unique set of work and life goals which they are trying to achieve in order to realise their personal vision. If they do not know what the company is working towards it may become difficult to align their personal goals with that of the company. A mutual awareness of the goals and aspirations of the company will motivate employees to contribute to the achievement of the company’s goals.

In addition to the strategic direction of the company, employees should also have information about the feedback from customers, major competitors and the general performance of the company. By revealing the mountain top, it becomes possible for employees to develop a stronger sense of meaningfulness and progress. Employees will have a shared goal and vision allowing work to become more than just work.

Develop with an eye on the future

In an ever-changing world of work, training and development has become essential to survive, ensure a competitive advantage and more importantly, excel. By giving employees the opportunity to continuously acquire new knowledge and skills, is a strong motivator and will serve to satisfy a few of the intrinsic motivators discussed in the previous section. It will, for instance increase the individual’s sense of competence and progress.

Training and development is also a great way to manage and retain talented employees. One way to do this is to transfer their envisioned career path to an Individual Development Plan (IDP), with clear and specific goals. A typical IDP specifies the position and / or the role and / or the level of competence that the individual is working towards and the development necessary to get there.

The type of information that could be included in an IDP includes the following:

  • Current and future position.
  • Strengths and developmental areas.
  • Training and development needed
  • Coaching and mentoring needed.
  • Potential development projects.
  • Exposure required.
  • Deadline dates to commit to.

An IDP is not only useful tool to ensure that the skills and knowledge acquired by the employee contribute to the attainment of personal and company goals, but also a useful tool to provide feedback. Frequent feedback sessions are necessary to ensure that employees stay engaged. Employees need to know what they are doing right and what they can improve on. They need to know what progress they have made and how they performed. There may also be a need to see how their performance links to the external rewards (bonuses) received. By linking performance with rewards in this way, employees will be more motivated to excel and accomplish certain milestones (sense of progress).

Involve employees

Employees often have insightful ideas and opinions about company products, processes, strategies as well as what the company is doing right and what it is doing wrong. A working environment where employees feel that their opinion and suggestions matter is essential for employees to feel engaged. Employees may also be more willing to commit and take ownership (sense of choice) of the decisions made if they were involved in the decision making process. The inclusion of employees become particularly important when you want to bring about change. People are instrumental to change and it is a lot easier to get their buy in if they were part of the process of deciding what should change.

To ensure that employees are more open to sharing their ideas and opinions, management needs to listens attentively to their suggestions. Many companies have open door policies, but employees do not always feel comfortable enough to step through that door. Sometimes it is necessary to invite employees to share their ideas, then attentively listen to those ideas and ultimately act on those ideas or give relevant feedback. For instance, giving prices to / acknowledging the owners of the ideas implemented by the company.

Listening to negative feedback is one of the more difficult but necessary requirements for a culture that encourages employee involvement. It is not always easy to receive negative feedback, but is important to take the time to listen without judgement. In this way, the employee has an opportunity to be heard. By providing a channel through which they can voice their concerns, you ensure that it does not come out in some other destructive way (Allen, 2012). By actively listening to employees, you create opportunities for the company to improve where needed and also to build on its strengths.

Build on strengths

Companies tend to zoom in on the negative aspects when things aren’t going well. This is normal and necessary to find appropriate solutions for the problems identified. By taking this approach however, what the company is doing right may be neglected. For instance when people resign, management conduct exit interviews to find out why the person is leaving. Exit interviews are important and have their merits, but what if companies focused more on conducting “stay” interviews. By asking people why they stay, what they like about the company, and what they envision for the company, will provide rich information about what should be kept and what should be changed

Lead by example

Employees tend to follow the lead of management. In this way, the culture permeates through the company from the top down. For instance, if management eats lunch at their desks, employees will feel obligated to do the same. If management works at least an hour overtime every day, employees may feel guilty to leave work on time. If management encourages work-life balance and apply it to their own work lives, it is likely that their employees will follow their lead. Similarly, if management uses the company’s newly decorated “idea” room and spend 15 minutes a day to think and reflect, employees will be more likely to do the same. Therefore, in order to create a certain culture or mood in the office or to bring about certain changes, management must reinforce it. The chances are greater that employees will be in a good mood if the boss is too.

Have fun

People feel naturally energised when they are doing what they love and most people love having fun. According to research conducted by Stuart Brown, the founder of the International Institute for Play, play at work could lead to an increase in motivation and productivity (Tarkan, 2012). Research shows that the human body has a 90 minutes rhythm by which it operates. After 90 minutes, a period of renewal is necessary to maintain a high level of productivity. If employees keep on working at a high intensity without any breaks, they may start resorting to coffee, sugar or even their body’s stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) for energy (Schwartz, 2010; Widrich, 2013). It may therefore be necessary to encourage them to take breaks and perhaps to do something fun / playful during at least one of those breaks.

Employees should be involved in determining the activities they will be engaging in. Examples of fun activities include:

  • Team building.
  • Playing pool / running during lunch.
  • Having a room where employees can have discussions / relax / eat lunch / watch videos.
  • A certain amount of time each week to read a book or work on an innovative idea / product to be presented to the rest of the company / management at a specified time.
  • Occasions where employees come together to enjoy snacks and drinks (celebrate birthdays and successes or presenting interesting solutions they are working on).


Many blogs and articles have been written on the topic of satisfying employees and ensuring that they are happy at work. Many ways have therefore been explored to ensure that employees are engaged and give their best. The most important thing to remember is that employees are unique individuals with diverse needs. The only way to really know how to make them happy and bring out the best in them, is to engage with them and learn more about their unique needs and aspirations.


Allen, R.K (2012). Seven ideas to get the most from your people. The Center for Organisational Design. Retrieved from: http://www.centerod.com/2012/02/getting-most-from-people/

Cook, J (2012). How google motivates their employees with rewards and perks. Retrieved from: http://thinkingleader.hubpages.com/hub/How-Google-Motivates-their-Employees-with-Rewards-and-Perks

Schwartz, T. (2010). The 90-minute solution: live like a sprinter! Retrieved from: http://www.theenergyproject.com/blog/90-minute-solution-live-sprinter#sthash.b2WRA5C7.dpuf

Stander, M.W., & Rothmann, S. (2010). Psychological empowerment, job insecurity and employee engagement. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology/SA Tydskrif virBedryfsielkunde, 36(1), Art. #849, 8 pages. DOI: 10.4102/sajip.v36i1.849

Tarkan, L. (2012). Work hard, play harder: Fun at work boosts creativity, productivity. Fox News. Retrieved from: http://www.foxnews.com/health/2012/09/13/work-hard-play-harder-fun-at-work-boosts-creativity-productivity/#ixzz2d5RQV1Ls

Thomas, K. (2009). The four intrinsic rewards that drive employee engagement. Ivey Business Journal. Retrieved from: http://www.iveybusinessjournal.com/topics/the-workplace/the-four-intrinsic-rewards-that-drive-employee-engagement#.UhtuopIwdti

Widrich, L. (2013). The origin of the 8 hour work day and why we should rethink it. Retrieved from: http://blog.bufferapp.com/optimal-work-time-how-long-should-we-work-every-day-the-science-of-mental-strength