4 Ways to Inspire Employees

March 2018
4 Ways to Inspire Employees
By David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom

4 Ways to Inspire Employees

Complacency. It’s a more common problem than we’d like to believe. It happens in every industry and workplace. It happens in every corner of the globe. This problem affects all of us. It’s our problem. It’s your problem. It’s every employer’s problem.

“I’ve read all the studies about low engagement,” said Bryce, a business owner we chatted with on a recent airport shuttle. “I only have eleven employees. I don’t think all that much about engagement and all the stuff that goes with it. I just wished my people would care just a little about the business, care a little about making our customers happy, and care about having some pride in their jobs.”

Although Bryce owns a small equipment rental company with just a few employees, his desire–for his employees to care–is actually a common concern we hear from leaders of all company sizes. “So how do we make people care?”

Here’s the harsh truth. You can’t make people care. But, you can provide all of the right elements that inspire them to care about your business, your team, and their jobs. Here are four methods we’ve discovered through research and interviews with successful leaders that can skyrocket your results.

  1. Care about and share about your employees first. As simple as it sounds, many leaders, even those who do care about their people, aren’t always very good at sharing their appreciation for their employees. Your people won’t care about your company or your goals unless you care about them and their goals first. Learn, practice, and get good at recognizing your people, because research shows that employees want to be appreciated. In fact, employees say that the number one way to inspire them to do great work is for their managers to recognize them.

  2. Cheer for effort, because effort deserves appreciation. As we travel and speak to organizations, we often find that many managers are confused by the difference between appreciation and incentives. Incentives are transactions: if you accomplish “abc”, then you receive “xyz.” Often times incentives are presented before a project or assignment. Appreciation, on the other hand, isn’t solely focused on the outcome of the assignment. Instead, it’s an acknowledgment of a person’s intentions, dedication, and hard work in addition to the result. Research shows that when efforts and results are recognized, employees report: 1) increased confidence in their skills, 2) understanding that they are on track and in good standing with their managers, and 3) improved relationships with their leaders.

  3. Be crystal clear about what you value. Telling your employees that you “expect the best” from them doesn’t have clear meaning to them because they don’t understand what it means to you. Employees want to know exactly what you value and appreciate. Virgin Trains, for example, headquartered in London, wants to encourage specific efforts throughout their company, unique characteristics the company values that support the brand to consumers. Most of us have probably seen dull corporate values hanging on boardroom walls. Instead of vague, forgettable phrases, Virgin Trains considers the power of their words: “Screw Average. Create Amazing.” Below this phrase is a specific list of expectations the company has for its employees. Our favorite from this list is “Giving a Damn,” which is followed by specific descriptions: 1) Empowered people working together, 2) Intuitive and flexible, 3) People not (just) protocol, and 4) Doing the absolute best for people; doing the right thing.

  4. Beg them to make the difference they were hired to make. Most people don’t apply for jobs with the assumption they’ll be a mediocre employee. They apply to companies hoping that their skills, experience, thinking and effort will make an impact on those companies. Still, we’ve spoken with many frustrated managers whose employees seem to be satisfied doing the minimum that is required from them. However, research shows that 88% of award-winning projects began when employees asked themself the question, “What difference could I make that someone would love?” So how do you get your employees to want to give their best? Beg them to become the best version of their unique selves. Remind them why they wanted to join the company in the first place.

While it may seem frustrating that we can’t make employees care about our companies, our goals, our customers, our teams, or even about their own jobs, we can give them reasons to care.  And, in our experience, when they do care, they’ll achieve at levels that surpass our expectations.

“That makes sense,” said Bryce. “I guess I need to spend a little more time caring about my own company.”

“What do you mean?” we asked.

“My people are my company. They keep me in business.”



David Sturt is the executive vice president of marketing and development at the O.C. Tanner Institute and the author of Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love. Todd Nordstrom is the director of institute content at the O.C. Tanner Institute. Throughout his career, he has been a driving force and voice of business publishing and management sciences, reaching millions of readers in print and online.

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