Improving the working atmosphere during this tough period in the economic cycle is a problem for many HR professionals. Both employers and employees are worried about economy recovery.

Employers will do whatever it takes to motivate employees to work hard to survive the crisis. However, employers or HR managers might find it increasingly difficult to motivate employees. If they stick to a bonus incentive plan, their employees may still appear indifferent and unmotivated. I would like to share my experiences of the “motivation generator”. These are my 6 top secrets for employee motivation.

  1. Have a Monday morning“chat”

I often hear complaints from HR managers that they find it tedious to study what motivates employees. I don’t agree with them. I enjoy discovering what motivates employees and makes them better at their work. My first secret is very simple. Talk with employees! Communication is very beneficial; however, it requires observation and thought. So never approach a Monday morning “chat” carelessly. According to Alexander Kjerulf (Founder of Woohoo, an expert on employee happiness), there are 4 types of motivations (See Figure 1). From a psychological viewpoint, people are either extrinsically motivated or intrinsically motivated. Most companies believe in the motivation shown in the first quadrant, but this is the wrong direction. The positive way lies in the second quadrant. By encouraging employees with positive feedback or appreciation of their work, HR managers are able to get a positive response. In this way the Monday morning “chat” is a key way to motivate employees!


  1. Short-term goals lead to long-term success

When you get into the office in the morning, what is the first thing you should do? The answer to this depends on your own working habits. My habit of starting a typical weekday is to review my to-do-list. The secret of efficiency is to plan the work in advance. So how can HR managers motivate employees in terms of planning? First, setting up career goals does not hold back employees. Part of the HR professional’s responsibility is to help employees be clear about their career path and what they need to achieve long-term career success. Once employees understand their short-term and long-term goals, they will motivate themselves to work hard.

  1. Make employee’s KPI“SMART”

By showing each employee’s performance data in descending order, employees at the top will focus on competing with each other and those at the bottom will strive to improve themselves.

The third secret of employee motivation comes from the management master Peter Drucker. In fact, everyone who studies management knows the SMART criteria. It is an acronym of Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound. SMART is created and used to facilitate goal setting. An employee’s key performance index is how an HR manager measures whether employees have reached their goals. In different industries and functions, the criteria to measure one’s performance vary a great deal. However, if employees cannot be measured against each other, then employers can hardly motivate employees even with attractive bonuses. Is the KPI specifically designed for a position? Can we quantify the target? How can the goal be accomplished? Is the target possible to attain? How long does it take to reach the target? If HR managers make employee assessment rules in a SMART way, they will help organize the competition at work much fairly. Who doesn’t like working diligently to win bonuses under the condition of fair assessment?

  1. Stop de-motivating employees

According to a survey conducted by Sirota Survey Intelligence aiming at 1.2 million employees at 52 Fortune 1000 companies, there is an evident decline in employees’ motivation after working 6 months in about 85% of those companies. Unfortunately, with so-called incentives and motivational management, the situation keeps deteriorating. So every HR manager should re-think what he/she does to motivate employees. If HR managers merely motivate from the perspective of the company, they are missing the big picture. As I mentioned in my first point, employees’ motivations come both from the company and themselves. The longer HR people ignore employees’ own motivation, the lower morale will be among the workforce. Hence, HR managers must stop using the wrong sort of measures to motivate employees.

  1. Involve employees in a competitive working environment

How do we motivate employees in the right way? There are 2 types of motivation mechanisms that companies can apply to improve employees’ morale. First, hire some “catfish”. The catfish effect originates from a story of a fisherman in Norway. The fisherman used to bring live sardines in containers, but sardines die very quickly once out of the ocean. The smart fisherman came up with the idea of putting a catfish in the container with sardines. The catfish is the natural predator of sardines. So, to survive, sardines need to keep moving in the container to avoid being attacked. This theory can be applied to human resource management too. In a peaceful working environment, HR managers should hire a few “catfish” type employees to make it more competitive. Second, put up a Performance Billboard to increase competition between employees. By showing each employee’s performance data in descending order, employees at the top will focus on competing with each other and those at the bottom will strive to improve themselves. Once the billboard is there, the mechanism will be established by itself.

  1. Deal with employees’ poor performance properly

When HR managers work on employees’ performance appraisal, they always find those who haven’t achieved their KPI standards. Should HR managers or employers terminate the employment contract as soon as possible? This is a tough decision for many reasons. Let’s start from the worst! If HR managers decide to fire an under-performing employee, they should do so quickly and in a reasonable way. If this doesn’t happen, negative feedback from one employee can de-motivate his circle or even the whole office. As for employees who are not far from their KPI target, it is better for HR managers or line managers to find out why and help the employee to get back onto the right track. Patience and help are the best motivations the senior management can use when an employee is not doing as well as he or she might.

Employee motivation is a key part of HR management. Rather than handing out incentives, it is more fruitful to think carefully about other ways to motivate employees.

 (Pic via Business Tianjin)