Motivation is a hot topic year-round, but particularly in January, the month of fresh starts, checklists, and lofty goals. It's the time of year we try to figure out how to prod our employees to excel, to hit and surpass ambitious targets.
Happy, motivated employees are, simply, good for business. "Research shows that when people work with a positive mind-set, performance on nearly every level--productivity, creativity, engagement--improves," Harvard Business Review reported in its January/February 2012 story "Positive Intelligence ."
So what's the best way to get it done?
Pay up. Money, of course, is a key motivator for many employees. And financial incentives do work to motivate employees--but only to a point.  After employees reach a place where they feel secure in their compensation, the real motivators are "learning and growing, recognizing them for their results, and giving them the space to fulfill some of their entrepreneurial visions."
Spread the wealth. Some favor the Pret-a-Manger way , or, spreading rewards among colleagues and collaborators who have helped you--the idea being that they'll reciprocate, thereby encouraging employees to collaborate.
Light the way. Consistent recognition of milestones is another way to spur your team onward; innovation is a marathon, after all, says Nancy Lee Gioia, director of global electrification at Ford, in this video :
Recognize generational differences. What works for baby boomers may not work for younger employees. "Pay for potential"  is a new compensation philosophy that gets rid of "the more years you work, the more money you should make" mentality, and recognizes individual talent and potential--and is especially effective with Gen Y.
Take a page from the NFL. Variable compensation--where employees earn part of their income in base pay and part in performance bonuses--is standard in professional sports, but in white collar professions, it represented only 12% of overall compensation as of 2009. That number is expected to grow to 25% by 2030. Not only does this form of incentive reward higher-performing employees , it could also stimulate hiring, since risk is shared between employer and employee. "Compensating employees like professional athletes--albeit on a smaller scale--might sound like a crazy concept, it has the potential to help overcome the current fears held by companies and the unemployed alike," says author and entrepreneur Kevin Kruse.
Remember to say thanks. Stanford professor and author Robert I. Sutton keeps it simple. He says a simple "thank you" packs a much, much bigger wallop  than most leaders give it credit for. And it doesn't cost a thing.
The experts have weighed in--now it's your turn. What techniques have you found most effective in motivating your employees? Tweet us @FastCoLeaders  with the hashtag #FCweighin to join the conversation, or leave a comment below.
[Image: Flickr user Joint Base Lewis McChord ]