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More Powerful Than Money: How to Really Motivate Employees

  • Written by Michael L. Starzec

starzec michaelOne of the most enduring scenes in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Patton,” is Patton’s speech whose purpose is clear: to motivate men to fight. The speech is really a collection of Patton’s most colorful quotes, woven together as an exhortation to perform well. For myself, I’ve never liked the rah-rah speech as I am pretty self-motivated. However, that is not a humble brag. You see, my dad lived through the Great Depression, spent his 18th birthday (June 6, 1944), at place called Normandy, then fought in Korea and Vietnam. Hence, if I ever told my dad about being unmotivated, suffice to say, there was not a ton of sympathy for esoteric angst over my desk-job travails.

With that upbringing, I found it hard to relate to an unmotivated employee who knew hard work likely meant better pay. Understanding their pay was not the sole motivation was a revelation: Patton’s one-size-fits-all motivation was appropriate because that’s how militaries work. As was noted in Peter Jackson’s recent World War I documentary, “They Shall Not Grow Old,” a soldier who complained about small boots was told: “It isn’t the boot that doesn’t fit you. It’s you who doesn’t fit the boot.” In today’s economy, that is not the answer.

Recognition

In collections, the bottom line is dollars making it easy to assume every aspect, including employees, is motivated by money. However, Harvard Business School found that perks, promotion and pay “don’t necessarily excite people to work smarter or harder. Instead, they prompt employees to do only the minimum required to get that next raise or job title.” Instead, studies by MIT, the London School of Economics, and Carnegie Mellon found that recognition from managers and peers results in employee motivation and retention.

Motivation and retention are intrinsically linked. When an employee leaves, there is recruiting, interviewing, training, resulting in reduced productivity for the manager who is interviewing then training as well as the new employee who will take time to get up to speed. All of this increases your operational costs. These findings are not the esoteric musings that did not impress my father: A Gallup study of 10,000 business units in 30 industries found that recognition leads to retention, increased employee effort and profitability.

Engagement

For us to organize with this mindset, the first step for me was personal engagement with new attorneys from the start. There you can determine aptitude, interest and ability in litigation, drafting, court appearances, organizational skills and willingness /confidence in public speaking. This allows us to focus on specific training and channeling the attorneys to their strengths. Additionally, we do not learn the attorney’s skill set but we get to know the person.

We also make an effort for spontaneous, departmental recognition. When a new associate wins their first trial or hearing, all the attorneys receive an email about the attorney’s accomplishment. Likewise, client or judicial compliments, effective handling of a difficult matter, or identification of a compliance issue are announced to their peers. Importantly, we ensure the other partners are aware: It is one thing to have your manager recognize you and another to have a partner do so.

Stay Connected

Finally, I try to stay connected with what my attorneys are doing: I attend volume court calls, review pleadings and placements – this lets me know what my team is juggling on daily basis. Consequently, I can make more informed decisions on time management and staffing while showing engagement. And it’s never a bad thing to occasionally bring coffee and some good donuts. Thus, it’s not the necessarily the Carrot and Stick approach because, as author Dan Pink noted: “Humans aren’t horses.”


Michael L. Starzec is a partner with Blitt and Gaines, P.C and is vicepresident of the Illinois Creditors Bar. He is a frequent speaker, writer and litigator on creditor’s rights.