Beyond the pot of gold

Jan 30 2012 by Emma Murray Print This Article

Non-existent bonuses, fewer promotions, mass redundancies and stringent budget-cuts. In times of austerity, what really incentivizes employees to get out of bed in the morning?

"It's a job, isn't it?" These are the standard replies I receive when I ask management staff what motivates them to go to work every day. They feel that they could be worse off. As half their work-friends and peers have been made redundant, and are even struggling to get interviews, let alone similar high-paying roles, they feel they should be grateful to have a job at all.

But is the "it could be worse" approach to work a real motivator? Well, no. As one manager says; "Just because I'm grateful to have a job doesn't mean I am enthusiastic about it; in fact, I dread going to work every day just to pick up a paycheque. I used to love the buzz of a dynamic work environment, of everyone pulling together to reach the company's goals. Now, that morale is so low, I am struggling to get myself and my team to achieve anything."

Thus, many face a double-edged sword: Employees might be begrudgingly grateful to have a job but poor morale and lack of motivation can actually threaten the job itself.

So, what can managers do to motivate employees during a recession?


Many employees would cite "money" as the first reason they show up to work every day. But what happens when there is no money left in the pot?

As one investment banking manager states: "There is a perception in a high-paying industry such as banking that money defines performance i.e. The larger the bonus, the better you're performing.

"The danger here is that some people end up defining themselves by the numbers on their paycheque. This means that when the money is taken away, some people take it very personally and feel it is a slight on their character. Of course, this leads to anger, lack of motivation and potential resignations."

I think many of us could own up to associating money with pride especially as it has, in the past, been used as recognition of how well we are doing at work. Just like those "hard-to-please" teachers at school that used gold stars rather than verbally rewarding good work, there are managers out there that use money as a way of saying "well done" rather than going through the "emotional trauma" of expressing their gratitude.

In this sense, arguably, a bonus or raise can actually be perceived as a reflection of our self-esteem, reputation, status, dignity, and control.

But, what happens when the money runs out?

Beyond the Pot of Gold

The following is the story of one investment banking manager who has successfully managed to turn his team around in these dark times to create a positive working culture as well as boost team performance in the workplace. He claims his team are a happy bunch despite lack of monetary incentive. And this is how he did it:

"As a veteran of distributing bad news on comp day (the day employees traditionally receive bonuses and salary raises), I decided that this year would be different. So, when each gloomy employee came into my office, fully prepped for bad news, this is what I tell them:

'Nobody is getting a bonus this year in our department; not one person, so don't feel this is any reflection on your work performance. Having said that, I think you have excelled in XYZ area and I am giving you more responsibility as a result.'

If my team-member isn't thrilled by this tactic, I ask them what they like most about their role, and what they would like to get out of it.

When the discussion begins, you'd be surprised at how enthusiastic people become. I don't think that people inherently hate their jobs, but in many cases the responsibilities they are given in their roles don't bring out the best in them. My strategy is to figure out what makes people tick, what makes them really shine, and work on their strengths, not their weaknesses.

If you take enough time to understand and get to know your team, then it is easy to find what motivates them. The problem is that many managers neglect this side of the business – the human interest side. This is where teams break down."

When I related this story to another manager in a different firm, he was sceptical:

"Look, I'm a manager, not a shrink," he said. I have 30 staff to manage; do you think I have time to invest that much into each individual? Times are hard; we should be focusing on the bottom line, so we can earn enough money to give to our employees again, not waste time indulging in this touch-feely business."

So, in recessionary times, as managers, which angle do you focus on? The answer is that there is no quick fix to anything. Happy employees won't bring about that instant profit you are looking for, but neither will disgruntled staff who are mentally halfway out the door.

Thus, managers need to assess their own working environment in order to find the right, durable, profitable solution. This takes time – but in an economy where money no longer makes the world go 'round, it's probably the best investment a manager can make.


About The Author

Emma Murray
Emma Murray

Emma Murray is a freelance writer with a background in investment banking. She is the author of 'The Unauthorized Guide to Doing Business the Alan Sugar Way' and 'How to Succeed as a Freelancer in Publishing' – a guide for graduates, career-changers and retired professionals.