A great workplace, with staffers who enjoy their jobs, can drive both productivity and sales.

By Phillip M. Perry

“Hire motivated people who can help your business grow.” That popular mantra has always been easier said than done. And today, the challenge is tougher than ever, thanks to slim pickings in the candidate pool. Many workers furloughed or exiled to home offices during the pandemic have been rethinking their personal goals, and some don’t really want to return to a job outside their homes—especially if they never felt engaged or experienced nothing but a dull routine.


The good news is that businesses can take steps to attract and retain “‘A’ players.” The process begins with an understanding of the forces that propel top achievers. “There is a difference between motivation and engagement,” explains says William J. Rothwell, Ph.D., professor of Workforce Education and Development at Pennsylvania State University. “Motivation is internal to people while engagement is a passion for what they do. Engagement requires a match between people’s passions and their daily work activities.” Working in a flower shop can fulfill the passions of all kinds of people, especially creatives.

Employees who are both motivated and engaged contribute maximum value to their employers. Not only do they get more easily into the flow of their work but they also reduce costly turnover by sticking around longer. “A recent Gallup survey shows that engaged employees drive 12 percent more profit,” notes Pete Tosh, founder of The Focus Group, an executive search and management consulting firm in Macon, Ga. “They are far more productive and lead to higher customer satisfaction.”

Before taking steps to improve employee engagement, a business needs to assess how its current staff feels about their work environment. “The most common misconception by employers is thinking that people are engaged when they aren’t,” Tosh says.

A close look at employee attitude is likely to be eye opening. A recent report by the Gallup organization reveals that only 36 percent of employees at a typical business are “fully engaged,” defined as giving their best efforts or working to their full potential. Fully 13 percent are “actively disengaged,” meaning they are miserable in their duties and spreading unhappiness to coworkers—and, presumably, customers. Perhaps as alarming was Gallup’s finding that 51 percent of employees are “not engaged”—psychologically unattached and just “going through the motions.” In other words, a majority of employees are not pulling their weight.

The best way to assess employee engagement is to speak with each staff member one-on-one. “Periodic conversations with employees will reveal any issues about their working conditions,” says Rothwell. “The business environment is one thing, but how people perceive it and feel about it is very often another.”

Here the business owner or an employee’s supervisor play a key role. It’s the frequent touch points of owner or supervisor and employee that offer the greatest potential. “Each interaction, even momentary, is an opportunity to build the relationship, to coach and to improve an employee’s performance,” Tosh states.

Unfortunately, too many owners and/or supervisors see worker interactions as interruptions rather than opportunities. Other times, these leaders’ personalities clash with those of their charges, and that can be a major demotivator. “An employee’s perception of his or her relationship with the owner or manager is far more important than that person’s perception of the organization as a whole,” Tosh assures. 

TIP: Engage the cynics. Harness the energies of employees who always seem to have a negative interpretation of workplace events. “Sometimes your cynics are your best critics,” says Bob Verchota, owner of RPVerchota & Associates, a consulting that aligns businesses and their employees in Hastings, Minn. “Make a focus group out of them; then you can really work on removing barriers to efficient employee performance.”


Supervisors can use motivational techniques to re-engage workers and keep everyone performing at an elevated level. But what techniques will work? While the common wisdom says throwing more money at people will stimulate performance, studies have shown that not to be true. “When people are paid more, their performance does increase temporarily, but then it goes right back down,” says Jack Altschuler, president of Fully Alive Leadership, an employee-engagement strategy firm in Northbrook, Ill. “And they then view higher pay as an entitlement.”

Money, then, does little to inspire great workers. But Altschuler offers three caveats. “For lower-wage people in financial distress, more money does matter and can change their engagement level,” he clarifies. “Additionally, people who feel they’re being underpaid will respond positively to increased financial reward.” Finally, at the lower end of the wage distribution scale, money can determine who applies for a job and who stays on once they’re hired. “If somebody is paid $12 an hour but can earn $18 someplace else, they’re gone.”

Those exceptions aside, what really motivates people is a nurturing workplace that meets their basic human needs. And to establish such an environment, experts suggest doing the following:

• Appreciate employee contributions. “The No. 1 thing employers can do to drive employee engagement is show appreciation,” says Altschuler. “Very often, doing so is no more complicated than something like, ‘Mary, thanks so much for staying late to help finish wedding flowers for today’ or ‘Thanks for making that delivery on your way home last night. It was for a very important customer.’”

• Recognize achievements. “When people do something worthy of recognition, they want to be recognized,” says Altschuler. “Whether it’s a celebratory party or a plaque that someone can hang on his or her office wall, recognition creates a sense of personal pride.”

• Provide autonomy. Anything an owner or manager can do to cut back on stifling bureaucracy is a good thing. “People need some personal freedom in their work practices,” says Verchota. “They need to feel that achieving an outcome is important, but how they get there is something they get to decide.”

• Emphasize larger goals. “People need to feel a sense of purpose,” says Verchota. “They need to feel an emotional connection with their work and that their duties align with their value set.” 

• Encourage new skills. “People need to feel they have become masters at some specific task or tasks,” says Verchota. Increasing the number of such tasks can make an employee feel great about the workplace.

• Cut checkpoints and paperwork. “Bureaucracy demotivates people by creating obstacles to their job performance,” says Rothwell. “It makes people very angry if they need to sit around waiting for their boss’s approval to do routine and simple things.”


As important as the top motivators are, one size does not fit all. “Not everyone is motivated by the same thing,” says Verchota. And the only way to discover what those idiosyncratic motivators are is to engage each employee in conversation. 

Owners and managers should ferret out each employee’s hidden motivators in brief weekly meetings. Discuss the individual’s attitude toward his or her work and happiness with his or her position. Rothwell suggests one particularly useful question: Tell me a story about a time when you felt particularly motivated in the work that you were doing? What was happening, who was involved and, most important, what made it so motivating to you? Then listen. “The story will come from inside the person,” he says, “And, most of the time, if he or she can’t come up with a story, there is something overwhelmingly bad in his or her work situation that needs to be addressed.”

Another tactic is to assure the confluence of so-called “Objectives and Key Results” (OKRs). “If a boss thinks an employee should be doing one thing and that person thinks he or she should be doing something else, there’s going to be demotivation at some point,” says Don Phin, Esq., a management consultant and coach in Coronado, Calif. He suggests having the employee write down the three most important tasks he or she does every day, then the three key results he or she expects. Then have the owner or manager do the same for that employee. “It’s surprising how often the two lists do not match,” says Phin. “And no performance system will work if they don’t.”

A cousin to periodic engagement reviews are so-called “pulse surveys.” These are frequent short questionnaires designed to spot trouble spots in a business environment. As the name implies, they take the pulse of the company.


Companies that fail to improve employee motivation and engagement leave money on the table that competitors are only too happy to collect. Conversely, companies that make a concerted effort to inspire their employees achieve the twin rewards of higher productivity and greater profitability. “Initiatives to bolster employee attitudes are proved to work,” says Tosh. “Such efforts are practical and doable, and they drive success in the business.” 

The right program will retain the best people and attract new ones. “If you want to be an employer of choice, you must understand you are in a major competition for top talent,” says Rothwell. “That means you need to create a great work environment where people can do their best and never want to leave.”

How to Motivate a Disengaged Person

Dave has always been one of your best employees. Lately, though, he no longer goes the extra mile. Clearly, he is disengaged. What can you do?

Don PhinEsq., a management consultant and coach in Coronado, Calif., suggests that Dave’s boss invite Dave to a conversation. An opening gambit may go something like, “May I share with you a couple of things I’ve noticed?” Then the boss states specific observations, followed by, “It might just be me, but I get a sense you were more engaged and motivated in the past than you are now.”

“The trick is to speak for oneself,” says Phin. “Notice that there was no suggestion that Dave was unmotivated—only that the boss noticed certain behaviors.”

A follow-up question can invite Dave to share any hidden issues: “Is there anything going on here or at home that’s causing this change in behavior?” Dave may reveal a personal problem such as a health issue, a divorce or some personal event that he normally would not share at work. 

Expressing an understanding might be all the boss needs to do for Dave to adjust his behavior. Perhaps Dave did not realize his performance had deteriorated, and if the cause is a personal issue, the boss might want to give him some slack until it is resolved. If the cause is something in the workplace, it is important for the boss to resolve the problem immediately.

QUIZ: Does Your Workplace Engage?

Does your workplace inspire employees to become engaged with your business mission? Find out by taking this quiz. Score 10 points for each “yes” answer. Then, total your score, and check your rating at the bottom.

Does the owner and/or manager(s):

  1. Convey appreciation for employee contributions?

  2. Recognize employee achievements?

  3. Provide autonomy to employees?

  4. Encourage mastery of specific tasks and/or skills?

  5. Reduce bureaucracy whenever possible?

  6. Emphasize purpose in the company mission?

  7. Interact productively with employees throughout the day?

  8. Discuss engagement issues with employees on a regular basis?

  9. Identify hidden motivators for each employee?

10. Periodically assess “Objectives and Key Results” (OKRs)?


• 80 or more: Congratulations. You have gone a long way toward building a productive workplace. 

• Between 60 and 79: It’s time to fine tune supervisor-employee relations.

• Less than 60: Your business is at risk. Act on the suggestions in the accompanying story.

Award-winning journalist Phillip M. Perry has published widely in the business management press. You may contact him at linkedin.com/in/phillipmperry.