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How to Motivate Employees Without Raises? Ask Them

Only they truly know what drives them.

Key points

  • Don’t assume that motivation is all about the money.
  • Recognize that different employees are wired differently.
  • Take the time to find out what matters to each person on your team.
Alexander Suhorucov/Pexels
Source: Alexander Suhorucov/Pexels

Many of my clients are struggling with how to motivate their employees (and sometimes themselves). Everyone is tired of the pandemic, and the delta variant is not helping. Masks? Vaccination passports? Are you kidding me? We are so done with all of that. But it’s not over yet, not by a long shot.

On top of that, people are just generally tired. Many of us have been working extra hard under very difficult conditions for the past 20 months. We’d like to see some reward and appreciation for all that effort, and it sometimes seems to be in short supply.

It’s all adding up to a lot of churn. People stayed in their jobs during the pandemic, even if they were not happy, because many felt lucky to have a job at all. But now the floodgates have opened, and people are switching jobs all over the place. A lot of those people are the most talented, high-performing employees whom companies want to hang on to.

How to motivate employees? It’s not always money

Business leaders are thinking a lot about motivation right now. And when many consider what encourages employees to bring their best to work, the first incentive they think of is money. So I was interested to read a recent article in Crain’s Chicago Business about a survey that found that people are willing to accept less money if they get a different incentive.

What is this powerful incentive? The freedom to work from home full-time. The survey found that 65% of American workers who said their jobs could be done entirely remotely were willing to take a pay cut of 5% to work from home. Fifteen percent said they’d be willing to shave off 25% of their salary to be remote.

Not only were they willing to take a pay cut, but they were also willing to reduce paid time off. Forty-six percent said they would give up a quarter of their days off, and 15% said they would give up all paid time off to be able to work from home.

3 lessons on how to motivate employees

Lesson No. 1: If you want to motivate your people to perform at their peak, don’t focus solely on the money. For many of them, flexibility to work from home is the reward they value much more.

Those of you who have been reading my posts recently will know that this comes as a total shock to me. I can’t wait to get back to the office. I feel like a shriveled raisin after more than a year of WFH. You’d have to increase my pay significantly to incent me to keep working from home.

This leads to Lesson No. 2: When it comes to motivating your people, it’s not one-size-fits-all. And it’s certainly not about assuming that what turns your crank works for everyone else.

You may be thinking, “Duh! This is not news.” But I find that kind of generalization is common as leaders think about motivation. Even when you recognize that not everyone is wired the same way you are, you still have the problem of figuring out what motivates Jenny and what motivates Alan.

So here’s Lesson No. 3: The best way to learn what motivates individual employees is to ask them. Schedule a one-on-one meeting and ask questions like:

  • What makes a great workday for you?
  • What do you need to learn to perform at your best?
  • How do you like your excellence to be recognized?
  • What would make your job more satisfying?

Retaining your most talented employees starts early

Often managers ask these questions only when an employee already has one foot out the door (or two). If you want to keep your top talent and inspire peak performance from all your people, keep these three lessons in mind:

  • Don’t assume that motivation is all about the money.
  • Recognize that different employees are wired differently.
  • Take the time to find out what matters to each person on your team.