Solving the motivation dilemma

By Dr Jana Matthews | 4 min read | The Motivation Dilemma. 

Motivation isn’t a problem if you hire the right people, help them, and recognise their contributions. Just avoid doing things that can demotivate even the best.

When CEOs tell me that one of their biggest issues is motivating people, I tell them they are in trouble. They have the motivation dilemma.

I don’t believe you can motivate people. In short, you need to hire people who are already motivated, then make sure you don’t demotivate them.

Solving the motivation dilemma begins with the hiring process

What’s the easiest way to avoid the motivation dilemma and have motivated employees? Hire people who are already motivated to do what you want them to do.

When selecting new employees, you need to find out what:

  • the candidate is looking for in terms of a job
  • kind of company they want to work for, their personal goals
  • they want to do with their life.

If there’s a good match, or fit, between your goals and the candidate’s, your values and theirs, and they have the requisite skills and experience to do the work, offer them the job. If they can’t tell you their goals, don’t know what they want to do with their life, or don’t share your values, then don’t hire them. It’s that simple. The art is in asking the right questions and carefully listening to the candidate’s responses.

Awesome people look for four things

You may think that the answer to “what motivates people?” is money. But leaders, co-workers, managers, and the company’s culture have much more of an impact on motivation than money. People want to be compensated fairly for the work they do, but many people join start-ups and work for little or no money.

Research we did at the Kauffman Foundation indicated that awesome people look for four things when picking a company:

  1. the company’s mission
  2. whether their manager will help them develop professionally and personally
  3. their co-workers
  4. the compensation package.

If they can’t tick the first three boxes, then money becomes very important. But if money is what motivates someone to join your company, then they are likely to leave for more money elsewhere. So look for people who believe they can achieve their personal goals by helping your company achieve its goals. Then surround them with great leaders and managers, and awesome co-workers. Give them recognition as well as appropriate monetary compensation for the results they achieve.

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Keeping them motivated


The first day for new employees is critical. They arrive on your doorstep, excited by the prospect of a new set of challenges, and apprehensive about their manager and co-workers. Make sure they are welcomed and provided with a clear orientation to your company that includes a discussion of your mission, values, vision, goals, products, organisation chart, and expectations. Provide them with symbols of membership in your company, such as business cards, a coffee mug, or a T-shirt. Introduce them to co-workers. If you cannot be there in person, send them a video, Skype, or call and welcome them, and set up a time to meet with them later that week—or make sure their manager meets with them. Make their orientation much more than filling out personnel forms.


After orientation, keep your employees motivated by providing three kinds of education:

  • Job related (e.g. additional learning and skills in their functional areas)
  • Company related (e.g. information about where the company is going, its strategy and plans)
  • Personal development (e.g. conflict resolution, time management, presentation skills, delegation, and communication skills)

Working with and coaching the people who report to you is another way to keep them motivated. Employees like having ‘face time’ with their managers, and often learn by observing what their managers say and do in actual or virtual meetings. It’s important to show employees that how they produce results is as important as what gets produced. Reward those who understand that and terminate those who do not.

Feedback and rewards

Many employees like to get feedback but dread formal performance reviews. So get in the habit of providing informal feedback on a regular basis. Let employees try new things, make mistakes, and help them learn from those mistakes. When you conduct the formal performance reviews, ask employees to review their own performance first, talk about what went well as well as the misfires, the failures, and what they learned from those experiences. Then provide your own review. Together, discuss what additional knowledge or skills they need to prepare them for the next level of responsibility. Set new goals for them, create a development plan for each employee, and make sure that you recognise and reward those who produce.

Non-monetary rewards are sometimes as effective as money in recognising performance and maintaining motivation. Take time to recognise someone for a ‘job well done’ at a company meeting; send a card or write a personal note thanking them for what they did and how they did it; provide a gift card or a voucher for ‘dinner for two’ at an upscale restaurant. But make sure your rewards are meaningful to your employees. Providing rewards they don’t want or can’t use can actually be demotivating.

Don’t be a demotivator

Sometimes leaders unwittingly demotivate employees by doing the following:

  • Allowing people to be confused. If you have inconsistent goals or the company direction is not clear, you risk taking your team in circles. Confusion and inconsistency are major demotivators.
  • Keeping the bad apples. Misfits, malcontents, and non-performers have a negative impact on co-workers. Keeping these people is a big demotivator to other employees.
  • Bad management. When a manager never admits to doing anything wrong, claims all the credit for success, or blames everyone else for failure, people become demotivated and eventually leave. No-one wants to work for this kind of a manager.

Solve the motivation dilemma

Motivation and demotivation are two sides of the same coin. To avoid the motivation dilemma: select the right kinds of people, help them continue to grow and learn, and recognise and reward their contributions. You’ll find that ‘keeping them motivated’ isn’t difficult at all.

Dr Jana Matthews

Article and artwork as featured in The CEO Magazine

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