How to Create a Motivating Work Environment

These days, leaders are looking for way to keep their employees focused and motivated during challenging economic and business conditions. With layoffs, pay freezes, furloughs, and 401K cuts, there’s plenty of bad news going on that a leader can’t control that can drag a team down.

What does a “motivating environment” look like? When it’s 5:00pm, and most of the department is on the way out the door and your team is still working hard and having fun at the same time. A motivating environment is when people are pushing themselves harder than any boss could ever push them. It’s when people are giving it their all when no one is watching and no one may ever know. They’re giving 110% because they want to, not because they have to.

So what can a leader do to create this kind on environment? Here are 10 ideas, in order of importance:

1. Create motivating work. THE most important thing any leader can do to create a motivating environment is to make sure the work every member of the team is doing is strategic. That is, the work is important to the success of the business. When you feel like what you are doing is making a difference, it’s energizing. On the other hand, there’s no worse feeling than knowing your work just doesn’t matter. Every leader has some degree of discretion in being able to eliminate or minimize the amount of “muda” (non-value-added work) that flows into a team.
Any job can be strategic. I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the two bricklayers; one of them saw his job as stacking bricks. The other saw his mission as building a magnificent cathedral. Same job – different worldview.
Making sure work is strategic is the best form of job security a leader can give a team. It’s every leader’s job to scrutinize every team member’s work like a CEO looking for jobs to cut. If the work is important, it’s less likely to be eliminated.

2. Hire A players and get rid of C players. A players (high performers) tend to be self-motivated to begin with. When you create a team of A players, they feed off of each other. The standards are raised, the energy level increases, teamwork improves, and there’s a low tolerance for anything less than excellence. On the other hand, one or more C players (poor performers or bad attitudes) can infect a team like a cancer, breed resentment, and drag everyone down.

3. Don’t micromanage – get out of the way. A players don’t need to have a manager breathing down their necks – in fact, it drives them crazy. Show your employees that you are interested in what they are doing, but you trust them to make their own decisions and do things differently than you might do them.

4. Promote your team’s work. As a leader, it’s your job to be your employee’s PR agent. Make sure their good work gets noticed, recognized, and appreciated. Don’t worry about over promoting your team’s good work – most managers love to get good news. Just make sure the bragging is about them – not about you.

5. Loosen up the rules and bureaucracy. As long as your team is focusing on what’s really important (see #1, strategic work), and performing at a high level (see #2, A players), cut them some slack. Don’t hassle them with minutia, give them flexibility in work hours, and protect them from what we used to call “corporate rain” (stupid mandates passed down from corporate from people whose job it was to push muda on everyone else).

6. Don’t be a jerk. Sounds simple, but as leaders, we’re all human. No one sees themselves as a jerk, and no one wants to be a jerk. The key is to be open to feedback. Ask a few trusted team members to let you know if you’ve done or said something insensitive or clueless. I’m fortunate to have a few employees who will (tactfully) tell it like it is to me – and while it stings, and I feel like a fool, I completely appreciate it. It gives me a chance to make amends.

7. Get personal. Get to know your employees as people learn about their families, their career goals, and truly care about them. I know a leader who when one of his employees went above and beyond the call of duty, and put in extra hours, he would send a hand written note to the employee’s spouse along with a gift certificate for a night out. He recognized the effect the job was having on his employee’s home life, and wanted to let the spouse know what a great job he was doing and how much he appreciated her support. While that may not be appropriate for everyone, it’s an example of showing your employees you care about their personal lives, not just work. Don’t let your employees get carried away and miss out on important family events – let them know that family always comes first.

8. Set a good example. Be motivated, enthused, energized, and passionate about your own work and the work of the team.

9. Encourage camaraderie during work hours. Bring in a pizza now and then, go out to lunch, and celebrate milestones. Notice I said during work hours. While it’s OK if your employees want to go out for a drink after work, or get together on their own time, I don’t believe a leader should intrude on people’s own time in the name of teambuilding.

10. Pay people for what they are worth. Yes, compensation is important, but I’ve listed it last. While pay is not a motivator, it can be a de-motivator if people feel they are underpaid. Do everything you can as a leader to fight for well deserved merit increases, promotions, and bonuses.