A report by Gallup shows that only 29% of workers in the US workforce are engaged in their work. The rest are either not engaged (45%), or actively disengaged (26%).

Unfortunately, this disengagement is costing companies between $450 and $550 billion every year, according to a report by the Harvard Business Review.

Employee disengagement also leads to increased absenteeism and increased employee turnover.

Source: Snacknation

Source: Snacknation

These statistics create a big question: what can companies do to keep their employees intrinsically motivated?

On the face of it, keeping employees motivated seems like an easy thing to do, at least in theory.

When it comes to doing it practically in real life situations, however, it is a lot more challenging, especially when you are dealing with huge teams, teams spread out across different locations, or teams that are already struggling with heavy workloads.

In most cases, a lot of managers and leaders turn to the old carrot versus stick approach to motivation, offering a carrot as an incentive for compliance and a stick as a consequence of non-compliance.

Unfortunately, this approach is not very effective, because its sole focus is on compliance, rather than intrinsic motivation.


The stick and carrot approach to motivation is an old school motivation theory that is based on the psychological premise that human beings are primarily motivated by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.

The concept of the carrot and stick is derived from an old story about a mule.

The story suggests that the best way to get the mule to move forward is to dangle a carrot in front of him and strike him with a stick from behind if he fails to move.

In this case, the carrot acts as a reward for compliance (moving), while the stick acts as punishment for noncompliance (not moving).

Under the carrot stick or stick approach to motivation, which was introduced during the industrial revolution by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the key to motivating employees is to reward them with things such as money, promotions, and other financial and non-financial benefits whenever they perform efficiently or exhibit desired behaviors, and punish them when they do not perform as expected.

The problem with this approach to motivation is that is assumes that human beings are simplistic creatures that can be easily manipulated to react predictably to the simple application of pleasure or pain.

However, human beings are highly complex social animals whose behavior cannot be explained or controlled using such a simplistic model.

According to PhD and author of Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, Dr. Paul Marciano, there is over four decades worth of research showing that the carrots and stick approach, which is commonly applied in the workplace through reward and recognition programs, is ineffective. Actually, the research shows that this approach leads to a decrease in employee morale.

In spite of all this evidence on the ineffectiveness of the carrot and stick approach to motivation, a lot of companies still continue to apply these obsolete methods.

If you want your employees to remain motivated and engaged, you need to do away with this approach and adopt better methods of motivating your employees.


It’s good to note that employee motivation is not simply about getting employees to do great work.

That is the compliance approach we just debunked above. Instead, motivating employees is all about making them feel great about their work.

When employees feel great about their work, not only will they be more committed to doing great work, but they will also feel more satisfied with their work and are more likely to remain loyal to your organization.

Below are some ways to get employees to feel great about their work, rather than simply getting them to do great work.

Respect Your Employees Capabilities

When hiring employees, most companies look for intelligent, competent employees who are capable of working with minimal supervision and have skills such as initiative and decision making.

It is therefore quite ironic that, after hiring such employees, employers then spend the rest of the time treating these employees like incompetent children who do not know what they are doing.

Their bosses become micromanagers, constantly looking over the employee’s shoulder to make sure he or she doesn’t do anything wrong, scolding them and talking down their abilities, and generally not believing that these employees cannot get anything done without close supervision.

This is one of the greatest killers of employee motivation.

Actually, a survey conducted by Comparably reported that 39% of employees say that micromanagement is the worst trait in a boss.

If you want your employees to be productive and motivated, you have to treat them like competent adults who know what they are doing.

This means you should see them as partners and as your equals.

Sure, you might be their boss, but their work is equally important to the organization as the work you do, and you hired them because they know how to get it done.

So give them the space to do it.

Instead of always questioning their work and trying to watch their every move, show them that you have respect for their skills and capabilities and that you trust them to get their work done, even without your supervision.

You can also think of ways to make compromises to their wants and needs, rather than dictating everything to them.

For instance, more companies today are giving employees a better work-life balance by allowing them to work from home, and according to a study by FlexJobs, this is making employees more loyal and motivated.

Share Context and Provide Relevance

A lot of bosses think of their employees as cogs in a wheel, and as a result, they only tell the employees what needs to be done, without bothering to tell the employees why it needs to be done.

Unfortunately, this only leaves employees feeling like droids that can be replaced any time, and it is hard to remain motivated when you have such a mindset.

For employees to remain motivated, they need to understand the relevance of their work. For them to understand the relevance of what they are doing, it is up to you to share the context of what you are asking them to do.

Explain to them the goals of the team and the organization, why they are doing what they are doing, how their work will benefit the organization, what success in their work looks like, and so on.

To make this easier to understand, let’s imagine a situation where two managers have been instructed to ask their employees to share some important company news on their social media profiles. The first manager says this to his employees:

I want you to share this company news on your social media profiles. It is really important.”

The second manager, on the other hand, says this to his employees:

I need you to share this company news on your social media profiles. The news about the new product we are launching will be a game changer for the organization, and the number of views we get in the first few hours will have a huge impact on the success of the launch.”

Which of these two managers do you think will get more of his employees to post the news? I’m guessing you went with manager number 2.

The second manager takes the time to explain the context and relevance of what he is asking his staff to do, which means they are more likely to buy into what needs to be done.

In addition to sharing the context and relevance of what your employees are doing, you should also periodically let them know what is happening at the highest level and give them a chance to share their opinion and feedback.

This way, they will feel that they are a part of the big decisions and are therefore more likely to be motivated to give their all, because they have a clear idea where the company is headed and they feel that they are part of it.

Anticipate Challenges to Enable Progress

Wherever you task your team with a significant project, it is inevitable that they will encounter challenges and obstacles while trying to get the task done. It is good to keep in mind that these challenges can affect your team’s motivation.

If you want to sustain their motivation despite the challenges, you should be proactive in trying to identify and address these challenges even before they happen.

What difficulties do you expect your team to face while working on this project? What can you do to make things easier or to knock down these obstacles?

Being able to make progress without any interruptions and knowing that you are ready to quickly address any challenges will keep your employees motivated throughout the project.

Recognize Contributions and Show Appreciation

Your employees have a real need to have their contributions recognized and their effort appreciated. It lets them know that they are not working in vain.

Unfortunately, a lot of employers address this need by resulting to the old carrot and stick method, which we already saw is very ineffective. They come up with programs such as “Employee of the month,” give bonuses to the best sales person, and so on.

The problem with this is that it ignores majority of your employees.

Everyone cannot be the employee of the month or the best sales person or whatever title you have for your reward program. Only one person will win these rewards.

However, this does not mean that the others employees are not making any contribution to the company.

By only recognizing and rewarding one person, you are telling the others that they what they are doing does not matter. This is a very quick way to get majority of your employees demotivated.

Instead of such reward programs (carrots), you should instead focus on recognizing and appreciating the contributions of all employees. Fortunately, this is quite easy and inexpensive to do.

Simply reaching out to an employee individually and letting them know that you are aware of what they have done and appreciate it is enough.

For instance, if an employee went out of her to deliver exceptional results, or if she went beyond the call of duty to help the organization achieve something, you can do something as simple as walking over to her desk and letting her know that you are grateful for what she did.

Something as simple as this shows the employee that she is not working in vain, that you can see her work, and that she is valued and appreciated.

This personal time and attention from a boss can greatly motivate an employee and make them committed to always giving their best.

Find Out What Motivates Each Individual

When it comes to motivating employees, a lot of managers use the same approach for all employees.

However, here’s the thing; your employees are individuals with different needs, characters, and personalities.

Some are introverted while others are extroverted, some just graduated from college while others are trying to get their kids through college, some are adventurous while others are laid back, some like working independently while others prefer having someone guide them, they all come from different backgrounds, and so on. There is no way the same approach will work for all of them.

The key to keeping all of them motivated, therefore, is to take the time to get to know your employees well and understand what is important for each of them.

Get in the habit of checking in with them regularly, talking to them and asking them how things are going.

Only by doing so will you be able to learn what matters to them and figure out the best way to motivate them.

You might find out that while being allowed to work from home is the greatest motivator for one employer, simply shaking their hand and letting them know that you appreciate their work is enough for another.

Provide Opportunities for Employees to Develop Their Skills

If your employees are constantly engaged in repetitive, mentally unstimulating work, it is inevitable that they will get demotivated at one point.

To avoid this, you need to provide them with continuous opportunities for them to develop their knowledge, skills, and abilities. Some of the ways through which you can do this include:

  • Give your employees opportunities to attend important meetings, meetings normally attended by supervisors, and meetings that cover cross-functional areas.
  • Whenever you are attending interesting and unusual meetings, activities, and events, bring some of your staff with you. This might turn out to be quite a learning experience for them.
  • Give your employees opportunities to represent your team in meetings whenever you are absent.
  • Ensure that all your team members have goals that they are pursuing as part of their performance development plan (PDP).
  • Reassign routine responsibilities to interns, newer staff, and contract employees and allow your employees to take on bigger responsibilities.
  • Give your employees opportunities to gain experience in other roles and responsibilities.

When your employees are constantly learning, your employees are less likely to get bored with their work, which is a major cause of demotivation.

Provide Your Employees with a Path for Advancement

Apart from giving your employees opportunities to develop their knowledge, skills, and abilities, you also need to provide them with opportunities for career advancement.

Nothing kills an employee’s motivation faster than the feeling of being stuck in a dead-end job.

To prevent this, you need to show them that there is a path for them to advance within the company.

This way, even as they do their work, they will know that they are working towards something, and that by remaining committed, they will be able to grow. If they don’t think that there is an opportunity for advancement, they will have nothing to work for.

Therefore, provide them with training that will help them scale the corporate ladder and groom them to be ready to take up bigger responsibilities and bigger roles whenever they appear.

Of course, you should also prioritize them when it comes to things like promotions.

If they realize that all the big jobs go to outsiders, they will conclude that you value external candidates over them, and as a result, they will become demotivated and start seeking opportunities elsewhere.

Make Your Work Environment a Pleasant Place to Be

Motivation depends a lot on your mood. It is very difficult to feel motivated if you are in a bad mood.

Mood, on the other hand, can significantly be impacted by your work environment, according to a 2011 study by Ohio State University in collaboration with the National Institute of Mental Health.

Therefore, if you want your employees to sustain their motivation, it makes sense that you should make create a pleasant work environment where your employees love spending their time.

To create a pleasant work environment, go for aesthetically pleasing spaces with lots of natural light and open layouts.

Try to avoid spaces with very low ceilings. You could also try adding a few plants within the office space.

Aside from the look of the working space, you should also make sure that you have working and properly maintained equipment.

Therefore, those cold-war era computers and printers and outdated point of sale systems need to go.

The problem with old, outdated equipment is that they are often very slow and lead to frustration more often than not. Of course, it is quite difficult to remain motivated when your computer keeps freezing every five minutes, especially when you are working on something urgent.

Making these changes will make your working space more enjoyable for your employees, which will in turn lead to improved moods and greater motivation.

Empower Your Employees

The more empowered your employees are, the more likely they are to be motivated to do their work. In many organizations, there are many strict and formal processes that stifle the efforts of employees trying to make an impact, something that can easily strangle an employee’s motivation.

To avoid this, you need to empower your employees.

Empowering employees means providing them with proper training, skills and mentorship to set them up for success. It means giving them the autonomy to make decisions concerning their work, rather than having them run every little thing by you.

It means giving them a chance to share their input and opinions on how they can improve their performance.

In most cases, employees have ideas about how to make their work better and more efficient, but they will never share these ideas if they feel that they are not going to be listened to.

Therefore, you need to create a culture where they know that their advice will be listened to and implemented.

Doing this will make your employees feel that they have some sense of ownership in their work, something that will do wonders for their motivation levels.

Remember It’s All About Trust, Not Fear

Like we saw earlier, the carrot and stick approach to motivation tries to enforce compliance and accountability through the threat of punishment.

Unfortunately, this does not lead to true accountability. Employees who are subjected to this will only be as accountable or compliant as it takes to avoid punishment.

However, if you want your company to grow, you don’t want employees who just do the bare minimum. You want motivated employees who are willing to go out of their way for the sake of the organization.

If you want to have intrinsically motivated employees, you should stop using fear to motivate, and instead focus on building trust with your employees.

When compliance and accountability is based on mutual trust, your employees will be more likely to give their all.

They become truly invested in the company’s goals and do great work, not because they are trying to avoid getting punished, but because they want their work to make a difference to the organization.

This is the best kind of motivation.

To build trust with your employees, communication is very important.

You should create a safe environment where your employees can easily talk to you about their goals and dreams, their wins, and their concerns.

They need to know that you are there to support them, not to lord over them. You should also show them that you trust them and are confident in their abilities.

f you do this, it is very unlikely that they will disappoint you.


A lot of companies are struggling with keeping their employees motivated, yet many of them continue to rely on outdated methods of motivating employees, such as the carrot and stick approach. Unfortunately, these methods, designed during the industrial evolution, are no longer effective.

Keeping employees motivated today is not just about getting them to do great work, but also making sure that they feel great about their work.

To do this, you need to respect your employees and their capabilities, show the context and relevance of their work, anticipate and address the challenges they are going to face in their work, recognize and show appreciation for their contributions, find out what motivates them individually, provide them with ways to develop their skills and grow within the company, create a pleasant working environment for them, and empower them.

Motivating Employees is Not About Carrots or Sticks

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