3 Employee Motivation Ideas That Don’t Involve Rewards

By: on July 14, 2016

There aren’t a lot of mysteries left when it comes to effective workforce management in 2016. If you want employees to show up every day, reprimand them when they don’t. If you want them to stick around, give them good pay and benefits (and a work environment that doesn’t leave them pulling their hair out).

If you want them to enjoy themselves, throw in perks like telecommuting and company-sponsored happy hours.

At this point, they may even agree to be in that awkward team photo for your company’s careers page:

Totally natural


Yet one problem remains hard to resolve: maintaining employee motivation. How do you get your employees to do their best work, 100 percent of the time, amidst increasing daily distractions?

Relying on classic psychology, many companies think the answer lies in constantly doling out rewards like raises and bonuses. Surely a little cash can work motivation wonders, right? But research has shown again and again that any boost in productivity from a reward is temporary at best and detrimental at worst.

To quote Harvard Business Review’s often-cited study “Why Incentive Plans Cannot Work”:

“Research suggests that, by and large, rewards succeed at securing one thing only: temporary compliance. When it comes to producing lasting change in attitudes and behavior, however, rewards, like punishment, are strikingly ineffective.”

Alfie Kohn, Harvard Business Review

The reality is businesses need to do more than reward employees if they want to truly change behavior and motivate them in any substantial way. With that in mind, here are three employee motivation ideas that can have a lasting effect on your organization without using physical rewards.

1. Schedule More Frequent Manager One-on-Ones

For 15 straight years since 2000, Gallup’s annual poll has found less than a third of American workers are engaged employees—those who are “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.”

But it’s not salary or workload that is a consistent source of disengagement; it’s managers. The problem isn’t only with inept or emotionally abusive managers, but also great managers who just aren’t meeting and talking with their employees nearly enough.

Employees whose managers have regular one-on-one meetings with them are nearly three times more likely to be engaged than employees who don’t.

If managers at your organization are waiting for annual or semi-annual reviews to have meaningful conversations with their employees about department strategy, ongoing projects or individual performance, workers are going to lose motivation in the interim.

They may assume their direct superior is uninterested or unavailable—no matter how much the manager touts their “open door” policy. Scheduling weekly meetings to chat about how things are going can prove to be an effective, low-cost motivation booster.

Using Software to Increase Manager-Employee Interaction

Recognizing the pitfalls of only checking in on employees once or twice a year, HR software solutions have evolved to give managers different ways to record employee concerns and questions outside of a formal performance review.

Some products, like Trakstar, allow managers to leave notes in employee profiles. Performance appraisal systems like Reviewsnap even let managers set individual goals for each employee. Managers can also set automatic reminders to follow-up with employees who need more frequent feedback than others.

Employee notes in Trakstar

A manager’s workload is endless, but these solutions can help remind them to take time to sit down and actually listen to their employees—a simple act that can pay huge motivational dividends over time.

2. Implement Channels to Encourage Social Recognition

Don’t laugh, but I’m terrible at running. The longest distance I’ve ever run by myself before tiring out is probably three miles. So when I signed up for my first 10K, which is 6.2 miles, I was sure I would need to walk at least half of it.

Race day comes and I start running, but the atmosphere is remarkably different from my solo training sessions. Hundreds of people are running around me, and many more are cheering everyone on from the sidelines. To my surprise, I end up running the whole thing.

Besides illustrating how horribly out of shape I am, that story demonstrates an important idea: having a work environment where employees can readily cheer each other on and recognize each other’s accomplishments can be an incredible motivator.

According to one study, 83 percent of U.S. employees say recognition for contributions is more fulfilling than any type of reward or gift.

HR departments can play a direct role in implementing channels that promote this type of environment. Maybe you have a bulletin board where employees can pin notes praising the good work of others for all to see. You can encourage managers and C-suite to share positive results or instances where an employee went above and beyond the call of duty with the entire company via email.

But the best solution may lie in technology that mirrors the social media sites that employees use every day.

Using Software to Promote Social Recognition

Employee engagement or employee recognition platforms like WooBoard and Teamphoria, which act like an internal version of Facebook, have emerged in recent years. Able to integrate with popular collaboration platforms like Slack, employees can post statuses praising others that everyone else can see as they scroll through a company-wide activity feed.

If companies choose, they can gamify the system as well—employees can earn points and badges as they receive praise from others.

Activity feed in WooBoard


Part ego stroking, part friendly competition, social recognition is a powerful tool that employers can wield to raise the visible performance bar and motivate everyone to run their best race.

3. Develop Avenues for Continuous Learning

Too often, employee training comes down to “good enough.” If a new hire finishes orientation training, they’re “good enough” to start working. If an employee passes their final OSHA assessment, even by a single point, they’re “good enough” to be compliant in that area. Once a worker is “good enough,” learning and development suddenly stops.

Given that employee training can be prohibitively expensive, that approach makes sense. But there’s another cost here as well, at the price of employee motivation. Without readily available resources to hone their skills or discover new, interesting facets of their job, workers at your company may turn weary at the monotony of their day-to-day.

Sixty-two percent of disengaged employees say having opportunities for ongoing training and development is important to them becoming more engaged at work.

To promote continuous learning at your organization, look to free and cheap learning content libraries like YouTube, Udemy and Lynda.com—sources that are filled to the brim with interesting and relevant videos and comprehensive courses.

Department heads can make some courses mandatory, but it would be even better to give employees options (e.g., “Complete two courses you find interesting by the end of the month.”)

Employers can even take this one step further by developing a readily available training course library of their own.

Using Software to Develop Continuous Learning

When you think of learning management systems (LMSs), mandatory courses delivered in a linear format immediately come to mind. They’re the bedrock of employee training. But many platforms have evolved to loosen the reins on how employees consume learning content.

Adopting the MOOC (massive open online course) approach of sites like Lynda.com, platforms like Bridge LMS allow learners to search through an entire library of in-house and third-party training courses to consume material when and where they please.

Learning library in Bridge LMS

You can choose to add assessments to test how much employees have learned, or you can remove that pressure entirely—allowing employees to learn without the fear that they’ll flunk a test afterwards. Though these courses are entirely optional, a number of LMS features can encourage employees to engage more with ongoing learning.


Rewards can provide great, short-term motivation boosts when needed. But they’re just that—short-term. Along with the ideas above, here are a few things you should keep in mind when it comes to motivating employees in any meaningful way:

  • Focus on building intrinsic motivation. Rewards feed extrinsic motivation (“I’m going to work hard to get my reward.”) If you take away the reward, you take away the motivation. Talk to employees to see what drives them to do their best to grow their intrinsic motivation instead (“I’m going to work hard because it feels good.”).
  • Rethink your recruiting processes if needed. If you have a largely unmotivated workforce, you may need to go back to the source to figure out why. If your recruiters aren’t properly vetting candidates or are lacking the tools to assess a candidate’s internal drive, that could be the reason for your motivation woes.

Before increasing compensation budgets to dole out raises and bonuses to a capable but unmotivated workforce, know that there are much better tools at your disposal when it comes to actually influencing behavior and cultivating inherent motivation in your employees.

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