Illustration: Desadaphorn/iStock Illustration: Desadaphorn/iStock

Nobody is willing to work for free, at least not forever. But money itself won’t motivate your employees to consistently deliver high-quality work and go above and beyond for your business.

Sure, you need to pay your people, and pay them fairly—you’re not going to accomplish much if your staff feel like their compensation doesn’t reflect the fair market value of their work. But while lack of money can be a de-motivator, cash alone won’t make employees do their best.

Don’t take my word for it. Frederick Herzberg’s classic study on employee motivation showed that being content at work isn’t the opposite of being discontent. Instead, the opposite of job satisfaction is no job satisfaction, and the opposite of job dissatisfaction is no job dissatisfaction.

Herzberg identified a distinct set of intrinsic factors that led to contentedness, and extrinsic ones that influenced unhappiness. Motivators include achievement, recognition for achievement, the work itself, responsibility, opportunities for growth and advancement. De-motivators include company policy and administration, supervision, interpersonal relationships, working conditions, salary, status, and security. Notice that compensation is an extrinsic factor—per Herzberg’s research, poor wages will result in job dissatisfaction, but the best a fair salary can achieve is no job dissatisfaction.

If you want happy employees, you need to focus on Herzberg’s intrinsic factors. Your motivation strategy should also take into account two other verifiable truths: Employees will copy behaviour that they see rewarded in others, and different employees have different needs, desires and goals.

Many of the leaders I work with assume that rewarding employees means an endless drain on their budgets. That doesn’t have to be true. Be creative and flexible, and it’s not hard to come up with inexpensive ways to motivate your people. In fact, it’s possible to push people from average to exceptional performance without spending a penny.

Here are sixteen zero- or low-cost ideas to motivate your people on a shoestring budget.

  1. Set goals: Everyone wants to feel like they’ve achieved something. If you don’t mark your destination on your roadmap, how will you know when you get there? Hitting collective, company-wide objectives will make your employees feel like they’re part of something bigger.
  2. Offer specific and sincere praise: There’s no such thing as too much recognition, as long as you’re acknowledging tangible accomplishments.
  3. Get to know them as people: What are their hobbies and their interests? Do they have children or pets? Build personal relationships with your staff, and they’ll do their all not to let you down.
  4. Listen intently when they’re talking: Remember that your staff are your eyes and ears with customers. By asking questions of your employees and paying attention to what they have to say, you might learn something that will help you run a more profitable business.
  5. Tell people why: Explaining the thinking or reasons behind a task you’re assigning to someone builds their understanding of what they’re being asked to do, and will help them do it better.
  6. Facilitate regular lively and informational meetings: Your employees want to know what is happening at the company where they work, and appreciate it when you fill them in.
  7. Offer timely and constructive feedback: Your employees want to know how they’re doing, good or bad. If you offer critiques constructively, they will listen and work to improve.
  8. Celebrate successes
  9. Treat them with respect: Respect begets respect, for you as a manager and for what you’re trying to achieve with your business
  10. Offer flexibility: Don’t get caught up with quibbling rules. Think about your purpose and the bigger picture, and modify the rules where it makes sense to.
  11. Eat together: Food is a great motivator. You don’t have to cater a fancy lunch every day—the occasional potluck works just as well.
  12. Play games: It’s easy to get carried away with office-wide extracurricular activities, but the occasional break for fun can produce big results. If it’s feasible, offer small prizes—a little competition can up the entertainment.
  13. Volunteer together: Nothing brings a group closer than spending an afternoon together sorting canned goods at the local food bank.
  14. Declare dress-up and dress-down days: Why restrict jeans to casual Fridays? If your business environment and customer base allows, changing up the dress code can be a lot of fun.
  15. Allow for creativity in decorating the workspace. People like making things their “own,” so don’t insist on clutter-free desks unless you’re working in a hospital operating room. A sports team poster or vacation photos can make a cubicle feel more like home.
  16. Establish a stress-free zone: Sometimes even the best jobs can get a little crazy. Give people a space in which they can relax and unwind, even if it’s just a 10–15 minute daily break.

Merge Gupta-Sunderji is a speaker, author and consultant whose leadership development practice focuses on turning managers into leaders and people power into results. Through large-audience keynotes, small-group training, one-on-one mentoring, and customized consulting, Merge has given over 65,000 professionals in eight countries specific and practical tools to help them achieve leadership and communications success.

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