The Employee-Motivation Checklist

Of course you want employees who are happy, motivated, and productive—who doesn't? Following each of these simple steps will get you where you want to be.

Great leaders make all the difference.

In business, we see the impact of great leaders such as Tony Hsieh, who took the helm of online shoe retailer from founder Nick Swinmurn. Under Hsieh’s leadership, the company grew from $1.6 million in sales in 2000 to more than $1 billion in sales in 2009.

Through many years of research, trial and error, and working with companies of all sizes in numerous industries, I have identified 16 critical ways to motivate your employees. Learn these techniques and adapt as many as possible in your business.

1. Make employees feel they are doing something meaningful.

A recent survey by BNET (which is now part of CBS MoneyWatch) asked the question, "What motivates you at work?"

The results showed that doing something meaningful is more important than money or recognition to your employees. Twenty nine percent of respondents said that doing something meaningful was the most motivating thing about work. Money motivated 25 percent, and recognition 17 percent.

Therefore, the number one way to motivate your employees is to make them feel that they are doing something meaningful. Now, if your vision is to alleviate poverty, as Kiva’s is, getting your employees to feel like they are doing something meaningful is pretty easy. This might not seem quite as simple for the typical for-profit company. But this, too, is relatively straightforward. Establishing your company’s vision and goals—particularly involving your employees in creating them—will motivate them to achieve these objectives and help them feel that they are doing something meaningful.

2. Effectively communicate and share information.

You also must consistently share new information to ensure that your employees make good decisions.

You must always let employees know how the organization is progressing toward achieving goals. Setting KPIs and posting the associated KPI results monthly will allow you to achieve this.

3. Give employees clear job descriptions and accountability.

It is critical that you give each of your employees clear job descriptions and accountability. It’s not enough to just state each role’s responsibilities; rather, you must specify the expected results and tasks. For example, the customer service manager’s described role might be to handle all inbound customer service calls. Their expected results, however, might be to answer all calls within 15 seconds or less, resulting in 90 percent customer satisfaction in telephone follow-up service. Only by specifying roles and expected results and accountability can you get what you want from each employee.

4. Give and receive ongoing performance feedback.

When things do go wrong, don’t blame. You want to replace who questions with how questions. For example, rather than saying, "Who screwed this up?" say, "How could we improve this process or avoid this in the future?"

5. Have—and show—faith and trust in your team.

Most humans have relatively fragile self-esteem. If you don’t believe your employees can do something, they won’t believe they can either, and they won’t do it. You must have faith in them. You can’t just say you have faith: you need to show you do to enhance their confidence in their ability.

To achieve this, give your employees some autonomy to make decisions. Let them take ownership of challenging projects and decide how to complete them. Although it can be a challenge for almost any manager, you must let them fail sometimes and not get angry about it.

6. Listen to, focus on, and respect your employees’ needs.

You’ve likely heard this before, but it’s worth repeating that in leadership, listening is more important than speaking. I love this quote: "Questions unite. Answers divide." Asking questions of your team will get them to participate; dictating the answers will cause them to tune out.

7. Provide recognition to worthy employees.

Recognition is an amazing motivator. Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton authored a book called The Carrot Principle in which they discuss a study of more than 200,000 employees that they conducted over a 10-year period. The study showed that the most successful managers provided their employees with frequent and effective recognition. In fact, they found that managers realized significantly better business results when they offered employees recognition in the form of constructive praise rather than monetary rewards.

8. Provide fair compensation and pay for the performance you seek.

First, you must pay a wage that employees believe is fair compensation. Second, you must pay for performance whenever possible. This does not mean 100 percent contingent compensation. It means that you set expectations for base pay while also providing bonuses and clearly defining success. This will compel employees to strive to achieve the goals you have outlined.

9. Foster innovation.

Managers must realize that the vast majority of innovations come from frontline employees. They come from the people who are manufacturing your products or designing your services, who are interfacing with customers, and who are solving problems on a daily basis. As such, innovation must be encouraged.

10. Establish fair company policies that support the company’s goals.

Developing fair company policies that adequately support the company’s goals will motivate your employees even more. For example, you cannot treat attending a seminar as a personal day if you want to encourage continuous learning. Rather, ensure your policies and practices encourage employee feedback, collaboration, decision-making, and so on.

11. Get ongoing input from employees.

You want to invite your employees to help set goals so that they really buy into them. Seek employee input on key decisions and plans on an ongoing basis.

Understand that as the leader, you will make the ultimate decisions and plans. Even if you don’t follow your employees’ advice or take their suggestions verbatim, however, the very act of soliciting their feedback will give you more information and ideas and will make them feel involved.

12. Manage, but don’t micromanage.

Employees do not like to be micromanaged. It’s disempowering. It’s therefore important to distinguish the difference between checking in and checking up on your employees.

Likewise, when managing, don’t dictate every detail of how to complete a project. Remember, employees can’t grow and gain new skills if you’re telling them exactly what to do for every project they work on. They need a sense of autonomy to feel that they’re succeeding.

13. Encourage teamwork.

Most projects you complete will require input from several employees within your organization. Encourage these employees to work as a team rather than a collection of individuals to complete these projects. The easiest way to do this is to set up an initial meeting for the team, refer to them as a team, and give them enough autonomy so they act like a team.

14. Modify your management approach for different types of employees.

Great leaders let the employees they’re managing dictate the management approaches they use. Some employees may need or desire more handholding and coaching, whereas others will want or require less. It’s important to think about each key employee and determine the best way to lead him or her.

15. Give employees opportunities for personal growth.

Because people who get the chance to grow their skills and expertise take more pride in their jobs, you want to encourage employees in your organization to gain new skills. You can do this in many ways, such as providing on-the-job training and other opportunities to teach your employees new skills.

16. Fire people when needed.

The final technique for motivating your team is to fire people when needed. Underperformers can kill an organization; they can become cancers. When other employees see these individuals getting away with underperformance, then they start to underperform. Therefore, firing—as long as you explain to your team why people were fired—can actually motivate your employees.


Find more tips to motivate your employees by subscribing to the Fast Company newsletter.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Start at the End: How Companies Can Grow Bigger and Faster by Reversing Their Business Plan by David Lavinsky. Copyright (c) 2012 by David Lavinsky. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

Author Dave Lavinsky is the cofounder of Growthink, a consultancy that helps entrepreneurs and business owners identify and pursue new opportunities, develop new business plans, raise capital, and build growth strategies.

[Image: Flickr user Max Sang]

Add New Comment


  • martinjacob774

    Great post, thanks for sharing.

    The number 7 of thi list, Provide recognition to worthy employees is important.

    Employees motivates work better.

    The incentive travel is a great way from provide recognitiona at the employees.

    The company Maritur offers professional services for incentive groups in diferents destinations in mexico.

    Cancun DMC Greetings.

  • Entreb

    Great checklist, especially #1. Giving value and making your employees stay in your company meaningful really motivates them. It gives them the great reason to be more productive, not only for today, but also for the future.

  • Neil

    Guys, this is about motivating your staff, it's an article to help Business owners and entrepreneurs get back to ground level. I own a Printing Company, have done for over 10 years now, there is always a reason to read these articles because we sometimes get lost in the Chaos that bogs us down, day in day out. There is something here that every Employer/Entrepreneur can use, learn or refresh on. Yes we can all pick out one number in this check list and make a comment. The way I read it they are references which can be expanded if needs be.

  • Marc

    Yes, these are all common sense and yes, all have been rolled out before. But there is a difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. Having worked for 3 large global companies, I found that only my first 2 actually did what they said. In every organization there are bad apples, but there were extensive resources available to help coach and mentor employees before they would have to be fired. Sometimes, people are just put in a role that they are not suited for - whether under- or over-challenged.

    Good read. I don't mind being reminded of what constitues good management.

  • Darren Magarro

    David, really nice piece.  Some of the points you make are interesting.  As I head up a growing 6 year old marketing firm - its interesting to see the points you make.  We have a diverse groups of young folks (all in our 20's & 30's) that make up our team.  Each of us has a unique set of skills and getting the most out of each person is something we work hard on every day.  We're all at different stages in our career and sometimes get lost in the daily grind, however its important to realize (and embrace) the bigger goals we have as a company and we certainly are blessed to have such a strong group of individuals that make up our team.

  • Russ S.

    regards to #14... Do your employees have an opportunity to do what
    they do best every day?
    Chances are, no they don't. Why? Because we devote most of our time
    trying to fix their shortcomings rather than working on developing
    their strengths. If you agree,
    I highly recommend you read the book StrengthsFinders 2.0 and take
    the online assessment. The knowledge derived from these results will
    help you and your team uncover their true talents.

  • MeritShare

    Great article.  Of all the factors you mentioned, employee recognition for excellent work is probably the easiest thing a manager or company can do, but they don't.  Several studies out there show over 50% of employees are not happy with the recognition they receive at work.  We just completed a test to show that you don't have to spend a lot of money on a recognition program, it really is the thought that counts.

  • Kate Mendes

    Congratulations Dave for the tips.

    It is always great to have reminders...

    However, I just would like to add some questions to the discussion:

    What are your strengths, values and believes?
    What is your life/career purpose?
    What do you stand for?
    Do you "walk the talk"?
    Do you choose to be the manager or the employee? What best fits you?
    Are your daily day choices aligned with who you really are?

    If we are brave enough to accept the challenge to "start from the beginning of the beginning", maybe we will have a lot of insights...

    Kate Mendes

  • Cbhatkar7

    This reminds me of Gung Ho! the book. The question is, why don't companies honor these actions? So many failing companies are missing these important tasks and yet they don't see it. 

  • Tricia Reynolds

    Great article! I would love to excerpt it for my next newsletter.  In my experience, a business with happy & motivated employees will be much more successful!

  • Jane Moran

    A great practical list. Each of these in the list maps directly to the five social needs of the brain, in order to be engaged and operating at maximum effectiveness. Number 14 is different from all other items on the list, only in that it references a requirement of the leader to know how to truly empathize and tune in to the needs of each person, and then be able to shift gear accordingly. And that in itself is a brain-based competency.

  • Imm Upol

    Well I am no expert in such high end issues but I just want an opinion from all you people on this incident. An employee made a mistake and he was kind of propelled into doing so by his happenings in his personal life. He was thrashed by his Boss behind the close door and the poor man offered a sincere apology on such occurrence. The next day, his boss brought up this issue again in a Team meeting and made his best effort to insult the employee in front of others in order to establish his Bossing. Now, do you wise people think what happened to that man was something that he deserved or such situation could have been dealt in a more delicate way ?? We know that our personal life must not over ride our professional life but we must remember that we all humans after all not some pre-programmed proto type. Shouldn't the Boos sympathize the employee who is suffering from personal life distress ??? Can it be made an apparent tool for motivating employees ??

  • Kerux

    I would also add this: when you solicit feedback, don't become defensive or angry when you get it! Even the military provides for candid discussion when an lower rank asks "permission to speak freely." I've seen this too often, a person is written up for "disrespect" or "telling me how to do my job" when all that has been done is the employee responded to a request for information and they provided a suggestion. 

  • Ramesh Ramalingam

    I totally disagree with the concept of firing people will motivate employees. I think it is a wrong concept. Firing concept creates internal turmoil in a team and depresses the efficient workers and subjects them to internal work related politics. The result? A company will lose talented workforce. I agree with the fact that everyone is proud of doing something meaningful in order to say that he/she has done that. That definitely motivates employees. In my career I have see good people has been fired 80% of the time. That theory is blunt.

  • MK

    I have to disagree. The staff knows who the useless coworkers are. It can't be hidden. As an employee, I know who gets by through sucking up, who passes the buck to another worker, who can't be depended on to meet their part of a deadline. Too often the entire team suffers the boss's displeasure because of one mediocre worker. If the boss gets rid of those kinds of people, it actually makes for a better work environment for the other staff.

  • Eliakim S Lumbantoruan

    Intersteting...... But stik Have a Bing to state That employee has "doing something meaningful"
    The essential of Teamwork still back to "ARE" .... Acceptable .....Respectable...... Respectable ......

  • Mohammad Asif

    Dave, I guess one of the most important factor in motivation if manager/leader kills his self interest and consider team objective over his personal. Generally, we are not very good in accountability in organizations. Especially, managers are difficult to be held accountable. For example, managers hire wrong employee and later fire him due to under performance. A sound organization should consider all such factors (from hiring to coaching, developing, caution, warning to firing) before firing employees.

  • Morris_melara

    Thanks for sharing...however you don't need to motivate them, as everyone is
    already motivated. YES even IF they are
    motivated to do nothing...they are still motivated. You just have to
    motivate them in the right direction.  
    ; )