Home Management How To Keep Your Best Employees
How To Keep Your Best Employees

How To Keep Your Best Employees


In a world where Big Data covers almost every area of the business, there is one important area where no data is systematically collected — and that is data identifying the factors that motivate and excite individual employees.

Outside of a handful of organizations, almost every major corporation lacks a formal process for collecting and reporting data covering the key issues that excite and motivate their workers. I call this a “motivation profile.”

Think about it for a minute: taking positive actions to motivate your employees is a powerful and often inexpensive approach for increasing productivity, innovation, engagement, retention and even attendance.

However, I find that a serious “missed opportunity” occurs when managers attempt to motivate their individual employees but their effort turns out to be ineffective, or worse yet, even frustrating to the employee.


Do you know what your employees are motivated by?

This is because manager “excitement actions” are only partially successful because their “motivation actions” seldom precisely “match” the real motivation factors of each individual employee.

It is this mismatch between what actually motivates an individual, and what the manager “assumes” motivates the individual, that can be eliminated with some simple data-gathering.

If you don’t believe that there is a disconnect, I have a simple approach that I have used to find out if managers really know each team member’s actual motivators.

Survey a handful of managers and ask them to list and rank the prime motivators of several randomly selected employees. Then separately and independently ask those specific employees to pick and rank their top motivators from a provided list of common employee motivators.

When you compare the two ranked lists of motivators (the manager’s list and the employee’s list) you inevitably find that the manager gets no more than two out of five of the top motivators correct. And what that means is that in some cases, 60 percent of the time managers are expending their effort and resources to provide motivators that unfortunately turn out to have little impact on an individual.


There is no formal process for creating a motivation profile

You can’t really blame managers for not knowing the motivators of their individual employees because “identifying motivators” is a topic that simply never comes up during any formal HR process. In fact you could say that in most corporations, there is really no one that is actually “in charge” of non-monetary motivation and recognition.

Most professionals in compensation that I know provide little help to managers outside of monetary rewards, and certainly no one in compensation attempts to keep an excitement profile on individual employees.

In some cases, we do ask candidates during the hiring process what motivates them, but that information is never formally captured or recorded. And even if a hiring manager asks and then remembers a new hire’s motivators, because the motivators are not formally recorded, a replacement manager would have no way of knowing what they are.

It’s also true that during an employee’s tenure, the factors that motivated them when they started generally would not continue to be their top motivators after even a few years on the job.

Many corporations do make some effort to learn about the general motivators of “all employees” as a group in employee satisfaction and engagement surveys. However, because these surveys are anonymous, it is problematic to apply that general information about what motivates the average employee to specific individuals.


Generational stereotypes compound the problem

Without data and a profile on individual employees, after reading any of the hundreds of articles recommending the use of “generational stereotypes,” many managers clumsily try to motivate employees of similar ages with a fixed group of motivators.

However, if you grew up in a large family, you already know that different siblings from the same generation are not motivated by the same things. So to avoid this form of non-individualized motivation, what is needed is a formal process for collecting, documenting and making this valuable information on individual motivators available to those managers and team leads that need to improve individual employee results.


The goal: create a “motivation profile” for each employee

The first step is to get everyone to agree that the goal is to provide everyone that needs to get the most out of an employee with a motivation profile. That profile should be a formal electronic record of each individual employee’s current and historical motivation factors.

In case you are not familiar with the concept of creating profiles, you should know that “motivation profiles” are quite common in sales, marketing and customer service management. In fact your firm’s CRM system is essentially a compilation of individual “profiles” that help you better understand the customer and how to get more out of them.

The “motivation profile” covering individual employees should include different categories including the most effective non-monetary motivators, the most effective forms of recognition and what types of formal rewards have the highest impact on them.

It is also wise to include a section in the profile that covers negative factors and actions that demotivate and frustrate an employee, so that a manager can avoid them.

I don’t have space in this article to provide a detailed how-to guide but I can outline some action steps that corporations have or should use to capture individual employee motivators. They include:

1. Ask during onboarding
It only makes sense to ask new hires when they start to identify and prioritize their motivation factors from a provided list of easy to do and inexpensive motivators.

In addition, the new hire should also be asked “why they quit their last few jobs?” because that negative information can also go into their profile where it might aid their new manager from repeating similar actions that might cause the new hire to quit once more.

2. Survey them annually
Because what motivates an individual changes with the economy, family situations, their age and tenure in a job, it only makes sense to periodically update an employee’s existing “motivation profile” that was created during onboarding.

I recommend that this information gathering be done in a survey or questionnaire that identifies the respondent (an approach that has been used by Baptist Hospital in Pensacola and the University of Colorado at Boulder). An alternative approach is to incorporate the questionnaire as a part of the formal year-end performance appraisal process.

Rather than providing a blank sheet, I recommend that you “populate” the survey with a list of motivators that have been previously offered from employees in the organization. This reduces survey time because it eliminates the need for employees to rack their brain in order to identify their own motivators.

A similar approach to consider is a “more of/less of” survey which merely asks the employee to identify the components in their job that they require “more of” and which “less of” in order to increase their productivity or innovation. Once again I would remind you to avoid using the typical anonymous “all employee” surveys for motivation purposes because they don’t help you to understand what an individual employee needs to be fully motivated.

3. Interview key employees
If the company doesn’t have a formal survey process for capturing motivators, you can still encourage individual managers to hold periodic one-on-one interviews with their employees. I recommend that managers prioritize the “regrettable” employees (i.e. you would regret it if they left), and because these interviews take so much time, only hold them with your key or “regrettable” employees.

4. Hire the self-motivated
Even if you do collect data on what motivates an individual employee, in my experience I have found that it is also wise to hire individuals that have a track record of motivating themselves.

If you ask candidates during the hiring process to force rank the factors on a list that most accurately described them, you can get a good idea about who is self-motivated. I highly recommend that you give added weight to candidates that put “self-motivated” near the top of their descriptors.

5. Consider a small motivation budget
Fortunately most employee motivators don’t require any cash outlay but the reality is that spending a little money can, for some employees, also increase motivation. So a more expensive option to consider is to provide individual managers with a small discretionary “motivation budget” per employee.

Managers could use this money to pay for inexpensive things that were high on an employee’s motivation list, like new tools, some outside training or recognition plaques and awards.

6. Measuring motivation
Because motivation is an emotional state, it can’t be measured directly. However, you can ask a sample of your employees to rate their level of motivation from 100 to zero, and if you can show a statistical correlation between high reported motivation scores in a group and high employee output, most managers and executives will pay attention to increasing motivation.

And whether you can tell if their actual motivation was increased or not, if an action you take increases productivity, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time worrying about whether the action increased their motivation, skills or the number of hours they put in.

7. Identify barriers to productivity
In addition to identifying and utilizing positive motivators, I have found that another way to increase employee productivity is to ask them individually or in teams to identify the “barriers” that prevent them from producing 25 percent more. In some cases a simple survey or focus group can identify and reduce these barriers in a matter of months. In one particularly powerful case, after the survey effort productivity went up 200 percent.


Final thoughts

There is plenty of both business evidence and academic research that shows the power that motivators can have on employees.

Google’s “Project Oxygen” also demonstrated how the right management actions can dramatically increase employee output. I’ve personally seen cases where individual managers, when provided with a motivational profile and some coaching, increased the performance of individual employees by as much as 33 percent within six months.

When I suggest the “motivation profile” approach to HR leaders, most initially like the idea but many eventually end up resisting because it’s new, they are concerned about privacy, or they overly worry about the fact that an employee might see their own profile.

To me, those are minor issues compared to the dramatic increase in productivity that occurs when managers use only the correct set of motivators. I should also note that because U.S. turnover rates increased as much as 45 percent last year, now might be the opportune time to revisit the issue of increasing motivation as a retention tool.

In total, that means that if HR would make providing an individual employee motivation profile part of the tools that they provide to managers, they could directly increase output product quality and innovation while the same time decreasing absenteeism, tardiness and loafing.

From my view, that seems to create a larger ROI with just a little effort.


About the Author

Dr. John Sullivan is a well-known teacher, author, and HR thought leader. He is a frequent speaker and advisor to Fortune 500 and Silicon Valley firms. Formerly the chief talent officer for Agilent Technologies (the 43,000-employee HP spin-off), he is now a professor of management at San Francisco State University. An expert on recruiting and staffing, he was dubbed the “Michael Jordan of Hiring” by Fast Company magazine. Contact him at johns@sfsu.edu.

James Nguyen
James Nguyen



Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.