Employee Retention and Motivation

Now that you have recruited and selected the people you want, retaining and motivating them is the next challenge you face to help your business be successful. This article will examine the issues and opportunities associated with retaining and motivating your employees. The topics of employee retention and employee motivation will be discussed separately for reasons that, hopefully, will become obvious.

When looking at either of these topics, it is useful to recall Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (physiological needs, security needs, social needs, esteem needs and self-actualizing needs). For purposes of this article, the first of Maslow’s needs will be labeled "basic needs" and the last two will be called "growth and development needs." These human needs have been categorized this way so that they can be aligned to the subjects of this article—retention and motivation.

To retain employees, you must meet their basic needs (both in terms of their familial obligations as well as the workplace environment). In the context of the employer/employee relationship, those basic needs are:

  • Pay and Job Security that allow the employees to meet their familial and social obligations to "family" (in this context, family means any person for whom your employee has any responsibility to provide food and a comfortable and secure place to live and sleep)
  • Benefits that provide the opportunity to care for and spend time with "family" (this can be time-off for sickness, holidays, vacation, work-from-home under difficult circumstances, flexible hours, childcare arrangements, parent-care arrangements)
  • HR (and other) policies that treat people in a basically acceptable manner (sometimes characterized as equal treatment) in the context of the workplace
  • Working Conditions that allow employees to do their jobs in a reasonable manner (they have the personal capacity {they are in a job they can do}, space, tools, equipment, training, information, etc. that they need to perform their role in the work process, and their workspace is not too hot or cold-it is amazing how big an issue this is in some offices)
  • Working Relationships with you, their peers and subordinates that are sufficiently cordial and friendly so as not to create an unworkable/uncomfortable environment for the employees.

At one time or another, all of these items (pay, benefits, unequal application of policies or unequal treatment, poor working conditions, and dysfunctional working relationships) have been the prime reason individuals have chosen to vote with their feet and leave a company. If you learn how to provide these basic needs (using a sports analogy again), your players usually can and do play a reasonable game. Also, do a self-diagnosis by asking yourself the question, "Am I (the company) meeting the basic needs of my employees?" The answer is usually fairly obvious. If you, as the owner, don’t know off the top of your head, you won’t have to wait long before your people let you know they have a problem (if you are a good coach and have mastered "listening" skills). Further, if you do determine that you have a problem in any of the basic need subsets, what you have to do to fix the problem is also fairly self-evident. Consequently, we won’t spend any more time on the basic needs subject. Suffice it to say:

If you don’t meet your employees’ basic needs, you will not retain their services.

Now, let’s talk about growth and development needs, or, as Maslow called them, the esteem and self-actualizing needs. Mastering meeting the growth and development needs will help your business move from "good" to "great."

The first lesson that you as the small business owner must learn is that you cannot motivate any of your employees. Motivation is something people do for themselves. All you can do is provide an environment in which it becomes possible for your employees to fulfill their growth and development needs (as they experience those needs internally). As a corollary to this statement, and more bluntly put, what motivates you, the boss, personally may not and probably won’t motivate the people that work for you. Unfortunately, ill-advised or un-advised leaders believe that they know what motivates people, and all that has to be done is determine what they will give their employees so that x, y, and z are accomplished, and then business plan results will be in the bag— THIS IS NOT SO.

You cannot motivate your people and what motivates you will not necessarily motivate them.There is no "easy fix" to the conundrum called "motivation."

To be an effective motivator, you must find out from your people, one-on-one, what motivates them and then become their "personal trainer" to help them devise their own plan (and make their own personal commitments) to achieve that plan.

Do you recall from the previous Article the attributes of a good coach?

  • A great listener
  • Genuinely caring for people
  • Publicly praising people
  • Truly wanting people to be successful
  • Honest about how people are doing
  • Preparing people well for what is demanded of their positions
  • Enthusiastic about the business and the contributions of others to achieve success
  • A good teacher who helps people get better
  • Gives people responsibility and lets them do things their way as long as the desired results are achieved
  • Is trusted to the point that people feel comfortable asking for help
  • When a mistake is made, Coach doesn’t ridicule, but helps people to see what they have to do differently to overcome the mistake

If you want to be a great motivator, be a good coach. If you establish a consistent track record of genuine respect and caring, your employees will reciprocate by being long-term, high-contributing employees. And never forget that you cannot talk your way out of something you have behaved yourself into. Your employees will watch everything you do and listen to much less of what you say.

To motivate an employee, you have to create a setting and the opportunity for the employee to satisfy his/her pressing "growth & development need" and it will be different for each employee. If you will recall in the last article on Performance Management, it was suggested that each employee develop his/her own list of major duties/responsibilities and their objectives to be achieved in support of the business plan. If you are a good coach and have listened well, your employees will have given you many good hints at what is important to them-said differently, what need they are aspiring to fulfill. In general, and in Maslowvian terms, to feel good about themselves your people must have their need for self-esteem met by their own accomplishment accompanied by your public recognition of what they have achieved. That’s how motivation happens.

On a personal note that applies well to this discussion, the best person I ever worked for was someone who I knew cared about me enough that I knew he wouldn’t let me fail. And, because I knew this, I would do anything humanly possible to make sure I never failed him. We trusted each other and accomplished a lot of great things together.

On a closing note, let’s talk about the old proverbial "carrot and stick" approach to motivation. I wish the phrase had never been applied to humans, although the practice probably worked fine for most donkeys. First, the carrot is a food product that meets the donkey’s need for nourishment. Likewise, many bosses think that by throwing money around (the currency we use to meet the same nourishment need) they have discovered the nirvana of motivation. If you are dealing with someone who is hungry, it probably works. If you are trying to motivate an established sales professional, then it probably doesn’t have the same motivational impact. In fact, my experience tells me that once money is used as the sole means of recognizing someone (carrot) if and when it is taken away, a real dilemma is created for yourself as a leader and for your employee as the received message is quite negative. I do think incentive systems are important for group recognition ("the business did well, we all did well together") but not to create individual recognition and certainly not to "buy" motivation.

As for the stick ... all "sticks" can ever achieve is minimal adherence to a norm or an expected/desired behavior. If the stick achieves adherence, then it is at the lowest baseline level that will not occasion another application of the stick. And, the employee knows that if he/she doesn’t cross the unacceptable behavior line, then the stick won’t be applied. Sticks never achieve greatness, only minimal compliance. If you have an employee to whom you have had to regularly apply an object lesson (stick), make a final decision, follow the required steps and terminate the employee. No one achieves the "most they can be" through the constant threat of or actual application of a (figurative) beating.