Each week I travel the country speaking to groups of leaders at meetings and conferences. No matter where I go I’m asked the same question time and again by leaders ranging from frontline managers to CEOs , “How can I motivate my employees?” I’ve heard this question repeated thousands of times. However, what the person asking usually means is “How can I manipulate my employees to do what I want them to do?”

Managers and companies from every walk of life waste billions of dollars on manipulation disguised as incentives in an attempt to change employee behavior. Sometimes they get short-term results, but manipulation never works over the long haul. Because motivating people is such a mystery for leaders a $30 billion industry has been built around helping companies motivate their people. There is certainly nothing wrong with providing valuable incentives to employees who do a good job, but what these programs don’t do is teach leaders how to tap into what really motivates employees.

Take Steve, a regional account executive for a huge business services company. In a management shake-up his company hired a new vice president of sales. The new VP came in full of ideas. One of those ideas was to build a national incentive program. In doing so, he took the local budgets away from his sales managers and insisted that any recognition be in compliance and under auspices of the corporate office and the national sales incentive program. He established a process, rules for recognizing the salespeople, hired a staff to administer the program, and proudly announced the new and improved program to his field sales team of over 1,000 people.

Steve was a consistent top performer for the company, so it wasn’t a surprise when he sold more than anyone else on his team the quarter after the program was announced. “About a month after the end of the quarter, UPS dropped a box off on my front porch. Inside was a plaque with my name on it, a catalogue, and a form letter congratulating me on my achievement that explained what I could order from the catalogue.” Steve shook his head in disgust as he told me his story. “It meant nothing to me. I threw the plaque back in the box and handed the catalogue to my wife. No one, not even my manager, called to say anything about the award. At least before the program, we would all go out to dinner at the end of the quarter and my sales manager would toast all the top performers.”

He went on to tell me about the other plaques he’d been awarded that were still gathering dust in his closet. “This was truly the dumbest recognition program in the history of sales. It did not motivate me in the least. But what really pissed me off was when I found out that they were deducting taxes from my paycheck for the value of the prizes in the catalog they sent me. I finally went to my manager to ask that they not send me anymore catalogues. I was making plenty of money, and all I really wanted was a pat on the back in front of the other salespeople on my team.” Steve eventually was recruited away and said he is very happy at his new company.

If you are shaking your head, believe me—this is not the worst story I’ve heard. Unfortunately, far too many leaders have no idea what actually motivates people. They wrongly assume that there is a complex motivation formula, and the gurus and companies in the employee-incentive trade encourage this false notion.

What Really Motivates People

The reality is that motivating people is extremely simple. Psychologists and social scientists have proven time and again that the most powerful motivators of people are achievement and the recognition of that achievement. It is important to note that these two elements cannot be separated. Achievement in the absence of recognition is rarely rewarding, and recognition in absence of achievement is empty.

However, when people are given the opportunity to achieve (win) and those achievements are recognized by leaders, amazing things happen. People who are being consistently recognized for their achievements report higher job satisfaction and perform at higher levels than those who are not. In virtually any organization, leaders who consistently find ways to recognize the achievement of their employees through positive emotional experiences deliver superior results.

Recognition, to be effective, must be directed at achievement, big and small. Most leaders find it easy to recognize the big achievements. However, where the top leaders excel is in consistently recognizing the many small achievements required for big things to happen.

One of the easiest ways to motivate people for small achievements is to catch them doing something right and recognize them for it. The secret is paying attention. Recognizing small, everyday achievements is difficult for leaders who are under pressure to produce results because they are often so focused on delivering on plans, tasks, or fixing a problem that it is easy to forget to take time to pat people on the back.

One of leader who is highly regarded by her team admitted to me that although she knew it was important to consistently recognize small achievements she found it difficult to remember to give those pats on the back. So she devised a simple trick. Each morning she put a handful of chocolates in her pocket. Each time she recognized an employee for doing something right, she ate a chocolate. “It worked for me because I love chocolate and I rewarded myself for doing the right thing for my people.”

Another manager we interviewed explained that with the unrelenting demands of his workday, which often included back-to-back meetings, it was often impossible to recognize achievements in real time. “I found that on many days I would be working late after all my people had gone home. One night after a particularly hard week where my team had gone above and beyond, I wrote personalized thank-yous on sticky pads and stuck them on everyone’s computer screens. The reaction the next morning was amazing. People were coming into my office to thank me! It meant so much to them. After that I made it a regular part of my day to recognize outstanding performance with after-hours sticky notes.”

When it comes to motivation, thoughtful recognition of achievement in real time will take you to the next level as a leader. Certainly big experiences, like national sales meetings, president’s clubs, special recognition dinners, contests, trips, and so on are appropriate opportunities to recognize and appreciate employees for big achievements. However, in most cases small gestures carry far more meaning than big ones.

Author's Bio: 

Jeb Blount is a leading expert on leadership and human behavior. He helps companies, teams, and individuals transform their organizations and accelerate performance through intense focus on interpersonal relationships. He is the author of five books including People Follow You: The Real Secret to what Matters Most in Leadership, and People Buy You: The Real Secret to what Matters Most in Business.