Principles of Effective Motivation

Business, like sports, is very competitive. Customers want better quality and lower prices. Stockholders want more profit and bigger dividends. The competition continues to expand and improve.

Employee performance is a function of a person’s abilities, resources, and motivation. Motivation is the willingness to exert high levels of effort. What can managers do to motivate their employees?

Provide the following:

  • Interesting work -What makes work interesting? Most people do not want to do one task over and over. They want work that is varied and significant. Managers can use job rotation, job enlargement and job enrichment to make work more interesting. Greg Thomas, consultant and author, says that it’s important to give employees special assignments. Take the time to find out some of the special interests your employees have. Match their interests with needed projects.
  • Realistic goals -Goals that are challenging but attainable have the best chance of motivating people. Unrealistic goals often have an adverse impact on motivation.
  • Recognition and rewards -People want to be recognized and rewarded when their performance exceeds expectations. When managers praise employees they’re saying “I’ve noticed (better quality, improved productivity, etc.)”
  • Opportunities to grow and develop -Most people are motivated by opportunities to expand their knowledge and skills.
  • Timely feedback -Employees want feedback on their performance. They often like to receive suggestions on ways to improve.
  • Fairness -Individuals want to be treated fairly. They are likely to compare work hours, job duties, training opportunities, and pay.
  • Good working conditions -Actually, good working conditions may not motivate people. However, poor working conditions will often decrease motivation.

Practice the ABCs of motivation.

“A” stands for antecedents, “B” for behavior and “C” for consequences.


Antecedents are the things managers and leaders say or do that cause employee behavior to occur. In general, antecedents may focus on:

  • The task or work that needs to be done
  • The person
  • The rewards or negative consequences if the task isn’t completed as assigned

How the antecedent is delivered is also important. The delivery can run the gamut from polite and professional to threatening and screaming. The “how it’s delivered” part of the equation may have more impact than what is said.

The question for managers: What type of antecedent will yield the most positive reaction in the employee? And how should it be delivered? The right antecedent will satisfy a person’s strongest needs. For example, people who have a strong need for self-esteem like to be affirmed and feel valued. People who seek high achievement want to know things such as what has to be accomplished, what the deadlines are, and how quality will be measured.


“B” stands for behavior. In this case it’s what employees say or do following the antecedent. Their behavior is observable.

An important question is “What behavior is desired?” One of my colleagues worked with a vice president of marketing who wanted to improve the performance of his organization. The VP said, “I want to have an outstanding sales force.” When asked, “What does outstanding look like? What separates good from great performance?” The VP had no answers.

Managers also have to make sure one desired behavior doesn’t negatively influence another desired behavior. One company in Arizona announced the following new policy, “If you’re late for meetings you pay a $2.00 fine.” The announcement of the policy was the antecedent. The desired behavior was being on time for meetings. People began to show up on time. However, in some cases people abruptly ended important phone calls with customers to be on time for a meeting.


“C” stands for consequences. What managers say or do after an employee has completed a task is the consequence. Consequences fall into the following categories:

  • Positive comments and rewards
  • Negative comments and punishment
  • Nothing (no consequence)

The “right” consequence promotes continued positive behavior.

I once heard a management consultant say, “The most common response to good or improved behavior is no response. It goes unnoticed.” That’s sad. Most people (not all) want to be noticed and feel appreciated when their performance improves.

As stated with antecedents, how the consequence is delivered is important. The manager’s attitude, tone of voice, and gestures send important signals about good and bad performance.

Not all consequences produce the same results. Praise, time off, discipline, increased power, small gifts, promotions, and public recognition affect people in different ways. People’s desires and needs do vary. For example, my daughter Kate hates to receive public recognition. My wife Mary Jean, on the other hand, loves it.

The timing of the consequence is also important. Generally the sooner the consequence is delivered, the more it will influence future behavior. Managers who wait for the annual performance appraisal to let people know how great or bad a job they’re doing miss many opportunities to improve performance incrementally throughout the year.

Theories of reinforcement recommend continuous reinforcement to change a behavior. That is, every time the person displays the desired behavior, reward it. Punish undesired behavior. Once the new behavior has taken hold, use intermittent reinforcement. Provide positive consequences every once in a while to maintain improved performance.

The consistency of the consequences can affect motivation. Employees often get unmotivated when they feel they are being treated unfairly. “John and I worked 26 hours of free overtime to complete the project. He received a day off; I received nothing.” That’s not fair. In cases like this people often adjust their contribution to match the reward level.


Having a highly motivated workforce is critical to compete in today’s marketplace. Managers need to provide an environment that triggers motivated behavior. Pay attention to what’s important to the person. As Will Rodgers said, “When you go fishing, you bait the hook not with what you like, but with what the fish likes.”