Dangling Carrots

By Hannah Wallace December 31, 2006

Many managers think they need a magic mix of salary and fringe benefits to motivate employees. There's no such formula, says human resources consultant Laura Harto, president of Think Bigger Consulting Group in Sarasota and Fort Myers.

"People make the inaccurate assumption that the only thing that motivates people is money," says Harto, who has conducted leadership training for the City of Sarasota and the statewide United Way, among others. "We've found that flexibility ranks up there, often higher than money," Harto says.

Recognizing employees in front of their peers or sending a handwritten note to acknowledge good work keeps people motivated. "It's the things that don't cost any money that we've found are the most effective," Harto says.

There are carrots managers can dangle in front of their workers. But you have to make the effort to find the right carrot. "What drives one won't necessarily motivate the other," Harto says. She's boiled her motivation techniques down to ABC: A. Ask what employees want B. Be available and C. Communicate.

Harto's ABCs

A. Ask what employees want. "It's the most overlooked technique," Harto says. "How do you motivate them if you don't know them?" She recommends talking to direct reports one on one and asking, "What would drive you to succeed? What would make your life easier?"

Harto says managers don't ask because they're afraid of the answers. "Fear of not being able to meet expectations is not a good enough excuse," she says. If somebody comes up with something out of the question, prepare to meet them in the middle.

With so many workers pulled between family obligations and the demands of the job, a flexible schedule is a big motivator. Allowing an employee to work at home one day a week, for example, may make the difference between a stressed employee versus one who comes into work happy and motivated to give you their best.

"It speaks to so much more than motivation," Harto says. "It taps into what makes people loyal and stay" with a company.

B. Be available and listen to what people tell you. "Even if you're really busy, take the time to listen to concerns and suggestions," Harto says. "If you have an open door policy, mean it."

As a manager, adopt an attitude of "do your thing, have fun, I'm here to get the obstacles out of your path." Be responsive to what employees tell you and create a culture that lets them know that their opinions matter.

"If someone calls you, don't wait five days to call them back," Harto says. "Practice the sundown rule, returning calls by the end of the day." She says it doesn't matter if you don't have a solution to their concern; the call back is what's important.

C. Communicate. Positive communication goes a long way in showing you care. "When somebody does something well, let him or her know right away," says Harto. "It can make the difference between an employee feeling motivated and thinking 'why do I even bother?'"

When possible, communicate in person or on the phone rather than using e-mail. "You cannot replace face to face with electronic communication," Harto says, because it leaves too much to interpretation. "If it's an answer to a yes-or-no question or there's no chance it's going to be controversial in any shape or form, then go ahead and send an e-mail."

Harto is a meeting minimalist but says that it's important to have

periodic one-on-one meetings to practice the ABCs effectively. "You have to figure out what works for your culture," she says.

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