If you're challenged by employee motivation, engagement, or retention problems, this article is a must-read. Traditional employee motivation and recognition programs fail because companies and managers don't understand Motivation 101.

Humans crave genuine appreciation and recognition. Since we're all connected to each other, we immediately sense insincerity.

Token gestures backfire with the kick of a clogged exhaust pipe. I was once hired to extinguish a nasty internal combustion caused when managers gave out free Happy Meal Coupons designed for kids to exhausted, angry adult workers who longed for time off with their families.



It's always the best cure. Heartfelt appreciation for good work -- especially when a "Thank you" is spontaneous -- is extraordinarily effective. Gratitude carries a price tag of zero. Studies show that people who give a sincere compliment also boost their own self-esteem.

Constructive coaching

Many clients say one of their biggest challenges is to minimize employee feelings of rejection during performance reviews. This sad fact prompted us to add a special field test during the National Happiness at Work Studies. After completing the interviews with over 650 employees and managers in 21 diverse organizations, we returned to field test what worked. It's a relief to share a few of the proven strategies with you right now.

Build a positive feedback loop

This is a key component of every professional development program we implement. We begin with core groups of employees. Humor is an essential tool, whether we use "laughter yoga" or a technique like the one described below.


As employees of Division 11 entered the training room, they randomly drew an item from a large bucket. Whether the object was a hat, costume, or a work tool, it was labeled with the name of the job it represented.

Employees took turns, often interrupted by chuckles and howls, explaining what they thought they would find most enjoyable and most annoying about someone else's job.

A survey the next week determined that the exercise had created three important changes. A new understanding had made employees more compassionate regarding individuals they had previously disliked. They were also more aware of other workers' strengths and challenges. Employees who had previously felt misunderstood and isolated reported they felt more connected to other workers.

This was only a small piece of a dynamic, systematic training program we designed to enhance employee motivation and decrease employee retention problems. The employee motivation surveys we conducted proved that dramatic progress happened when we designed and asked "Empowering Questions" that made the process fun as well as meaningful.


What's bad for the bee is bad for the hive. workplace negativity is evidence that too many workers feel de-valued or alienated.

Anger and anxiety are symptoms of unmet needs, including a hunger for authentic relationships. Let's face it. We all want to feel that we're an essential member of a reference group. Centuries ago, as the human brain evolved, its chemical structure guaranteed survival of the species by programming us to crave meaningful connections with other people. We're also hardwired to feel anxious when we're rejected or isolated.

In spite of the innate human desire to bond with others, it's difficult for many individuals to maintain a secure place within a familiar social group in today’s hurried, transient world. The attention of friends and loved ones is constantly drained by competing pressures such as mandatory overtime, shift work, and geographic mobility.


In the National Happiness at Work Studies, employees who felt valued by other people made comments like below:

"Work is a safe place now. There's a purpose for the work I do so my life has more meaning. I don't have to prod myself to go to work. How do I motivate myself? When an assignment spotlights my talents, there's no 'have-to'."

Human relationships rule just about every facet of our lives. That is why my team constantly demonstrated real-life examples of how other companies and employees across the world have gained great benefits from healthy connections.


Below are some of our guidelines when we work with clients.

• Structure constructive coaching and positive feedback programs that create intrinsic employee motivation.
• Establish internal job exchange programs that feed job satisfaction.
• Initiate formal company programs in which CEOs and employees give back to the community. (According to research, this increases employee productivity and loyalty.)
• Use play and humor as connectors.
• Initiate peer mentoring programs.
• Ensure confidential, timely behavioral health services.
• Value the truth and seek open communication, even when the content will provoke anxiety. Ensure that employees can speak their minds without fear of negative consequences.
• Use humor and the sharing of positive feelings to facilitate employee bonding.
• Train with the brain in mind. Emotions -- not logic -- drive human behavior. This is a critical and often overlooked component of effective professional development programs.


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Author's Bio: 

© 2019 Doris Helge, Ph.D. Interviewed on “The Today Show,” CNN and NPR. Author of three bestselling books, including “Joy on the Job.” Certified Master Leadership Coach Doris Helge has helped leaders like you meet every challenge you’re facing. Discover all the resources you need here now!