The 3 Best Ways to Motivate Your Employees, According to a Happiness Expert

It's simple to say -- show your employees that you care -- but if you rule by fear, can you change?

One of the most basic leadership challenges is motivating your people. With low unemployment, this challenge is particularly important because the competition to hire new people is so high. Therefore, if you want to boost your company's revenues, it will be difficult to accomplish simply by hiring more people.

Instead of hiring more people, you could try to increase employees' engagement with your company. This is not easy to accomplish because so many U.S. workers are either not engaged -- generally satisfied but not cognitively or emotionally connected -- or are actively disengaged -- miserable-- at work.

Indeed, although a 2018 Gallup poll of 30,628 employees found that American workers were more engaged than ever, a whopping 66 percent of respondents in its sample were either actively disengaged (13 percent) or not engaged (53 percent). Despite the Gallup poll's conclusion that the 2.6-to-1 ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees was at record levels, leaders have a long way to go to motivate their people more effectively.

The good news? You can motivate your workers more effectively by creating a strong emotional connection to your people. All you have to do is three things, according to a Harvard Business Review article by Emma Seppälä, Co-Director of the Yale College Emotional Intelligence Project and Faculty Director of the Women's Leadership Program at the Yale School of Management.

1. Inspire your people.

One of the most significant advantages that successful startups have over large companies is that they supply their workers with what I call emotional currency -- since it often more than compensates for the lower pay that startups typically offer. As I wrote in my book, Hungry Start-up Strategy, a compelling mission can deeply engage workers' hunger to change the world.

Seppala's work highlights the value of this emotional connection. As she wrote, "Studies show that people who have a sense of purpose are more focused, creative, and resilient, so leaders should make a point of reminding employees how their work is improving people's lives."

You can take actions to inspire your people. For example, as she writes, you can distribute client testimonials, announce when corporate profits are donated to charities, sponsor programs that let workers give back to the community (I wrote about the motivational power of this in my book, Value Leadership), and work daily or weekly next to your people to show your allegiance to them and the organization.

2. Be kind to your people.

During my decades in the workplace I have often shaken my head with dismay at why leaders treat their people like mushrooms -- keeping them in the dark and occasionally burying them in fertilizer. Why go through all the time and expense of hiring talented people if you are going to treat them badly?

It's better for your business to be kind to people. Seppala wrote about a U.K. study which  concluded that companionship and recognition promote employee loyalty more effectively than high salaries do. She also noted that "positive and warm relationships boost creative output at the individual and team levels." 

Being kind may not be so difficult. If you are a warm leader -- a pearl of wisdom that the president of Toyota delivered at a Babson College graduation speech -- your people will be more motivated and productive and you'll be more effective. A good first step is simply to ask "how someone is doing personally and really [listen] to their answer," wrote Seppala.

3. Take care of yourself and your people.

Employee wellness makes a difference. Last December, Aron Ain, CEO of Lowell, Mass.-based Kronos spoke to my students. He said that he stresses to workers the importance of family above all else.

And that means encouraging people to take care of their physical and emotional health. Exercise, breaks from work, relaxation practices, and more strict boundaries between work and home can reduce job stress and increase employee well-being and engagement.

So create a culture in which it is acceptable to prioritize self-care. Only then can your people get the benefits of your investments in employee wellness -- such as gym memberships, yoga, or meditation classes. You can even boost your own and your employees' wellness without such programs -- just encourage employees to get more sleep -- which will boost their happiness and performance at work, Seppala wrote.

Doing these three things does not seem conceptually difficult to me -- but if you're not doing them at your company, you should start today and reap the benefits for your employees, customers, and communities.
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