The Ultimate Employee Motivation Checklist for Leaders

Rob Danna
Rob Danna

Motivation checklist written in a notebook

Having been in the business of employee rewards and recognition for over 20 years, I’ve learned a thing or two about motivating people to higher levels of performance. First and foremost, understanding what drives people at an individual level is key—and that entails a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Here are some best practices that move people in the right direction:

Give meaningful work.

Nothing is more mind-numbing than rote effort where there’s no connection between the task and job fulfillment. While most jobs have routine tasks that must be fulfilled, be sure to balance that by providing work that inspires people, too. Consider tailoring positions around people’s passions rather than forcing them into a job description.

Connect purpose to roles.

Provide your employees with a vision of where your company is going and how their work contributes to its mission. Try conducting a workshop that helps your employees understand how their role supports corporate objectives.

Communicate role expectations.

People can’t perform to your expectations if they don’t know the end goal. As a manager, communicate what you want people to do based on their communication styles. This means communicating in various ways and multiple times.

But always be specific. Ask, “Will you please do X by Y date?” instead of, “Could you do X?” And always be consistent in your messaging if you want to maintain a motivated workforce.

Make it fun.

Take a look at my LinkedIn page; I proudly say I’m trying to, “make work more like play.” The elements of competitive play and pushing yourself are exactly the attributes you see in all high performers. If they can’t play hard they probably can’t work hard. No matter what generation or combination of generations you have in your workforce, everyone wants to have fun—even at work.

Think about sponsoring celebrations for hitting corporate, department or individual milestones. Or have surprise employee events—pop-up parties, half days, volunteer events and days that allow total self-expression.

(And yes, I did compete in a lip-sync battle against our CFO at our annual meeting last year.)

Autonomy goes a long way.

One of the strongest motivators you can provide your employees is to trust them with decision-making authority and choice of projects. But be aware: It’s essential that when offering autonomy, you let people know what the possibilities and constraints are, so that their choice feels supported and not burdensome. My ratio is to interject, or course correct, 15% of the time and only when I know it requires course correction—85% of the time I rely on trust.

Encourage a sense of belonging.

Feeling “left out,” or having a fear of missing out (FOMO) are negative emotions that can impact trust in one another and create cynicism about management. Understand that not everyone is an extrovert who can jump into work settings and connect with others easily. Create opportunities for all people to work together collaboratively on projects they’re interested in. Go out of your way to learn people’s names and use them when you see the person.

Invest in individuals.

To stay competitive and retain my team, I know it’s important to ensure each of my employees have a development plan that will help them achieve their career goals. If your focus is company growth, invest in your employees. Being successful today requires expertise. It’s important to remember that career advancement does not require a new title or upward trajectory. Status, respect and high ranking in the meritocracy is more important than title.

Boost community involvement.

Team building outside of the work environment establishes close ties among workers and defines commonalities. Charitable crowd funding and community give back opportunities bring people together for a common cause. The good feelings springing from participating in these activities translates to feelings of goodwill for the company—especially when you give your employees paid time off to volunteer.

The examples above are effective ways to appeal to your employees’ wide range of intrinsic motivators. To get the full import of motivation, my experience has demonstrated it’s best to blend some extrinsic motivators into your approach as well.

Provide fair compensation.

Fair compensation is the first attribute in a trust relationship. If you don’t pay right, instead of thinking about the work, they worry about their financial situation or think about taking another job where the pay meets their needs. Paying people a competitive, fair living wage is the right thing to do; it’s the foundation of the employment contract. It also says a lot about your culture.

Show them the money…and the love.

I manage salespeople and employees, and part of their compensation includes commissions or cash bonuses. However, when I think about motivating people with more cash, I consider whether I’m rewarding for mechanical skill or cognitive skill. Cash works most effectively in “do this, get that” scenarios, but once the task calls for reasoning skills, a larger cash reward can lead to poor performance. It’s important to know when to use—or not to use—cash to motivate. I ask my sales team to do a lot more than just sell; I can’t use the compensation plan to turn the ship on a dime.

Use incentives and recognition to focus energy more quickly.

Give praise.

Years ago, I was sitting in the back of our sales meeting when the CEO surprised me with recognition. He stopped the meeting, brought in my family (another surprise) and praised me in front of everyone. It may seem like a small gesture, but that went a long way for me and continues to be a source of pride and motivation during my tenure. Praise is easy to do—and costs nothing. Why not do more of it? I can say that the most meaningful recognition moments for me are when I recognize each individual on our Leaders of Excellence Club trip—we all are beaming with pride and sharing the moment with our loved ones.

Offer tangible rewards.

Tangible rewards are bragging rights. I proudly display and wear my company swag (love my ITA Group socks) and constantly regale stories of when I earned trips, trophies and cool stuff for my son (he always spends my reward points).

Tangible awards give you one thing that cash can’t—shareability. People love telling stories about winning but nobody talks about the size of their cash bonus.

Get people talking about how great your culture is with tangible awards.

Set achievable goals.

Whether those who report to you are salespeople or employees or both, giving them goals to strive for is an extrinsic motivator. Goals are concrete reminders of job expectations and achievement levels. I like to attach tangible and experiential rewards in combination with personalized recognition to those who achieve or exceed their goals. For example, next week I’m taking our team to Northern Ireland—a land of Giants and Lords. One night we will have dinner in Hillsborough Castle, the residence of British royalty. Rewards like this are worthy of achieving the goals I assign. The reward has to be commensurate with the achievement. When goal setting and reward structures are set up properly this not only reinforces their behavior, but creates role models for others on the team.

Make recognition cool again.

Not everyone is motivated by an ecard or gift card. My favorite recognition moments are during our Leaders of Excellence Club trip. Sharing recognition with a recipient’s family and friends is the most powerful recognition you can give. Find new ways to highlight your high performers with exclusive rewards (backstage at their favorite concert, riding lessons, or a pair of Yeezys). Also find out how each person likes to be recognized—some like private, some like public and it always needs to be commensurate with the achievement. This is why one-size-fits-all recognition software is not working (the tired old gift card isn’t as inspiring as it was a decade ago). Be creative, don’t just rely on some vendor’s SaaS program to do the work for you. It takes creative ideas, culturally relevant activations and it takes you being 100% genuine for recognition to be cool.

Create friendly competition.

This is especially effective within your sales organization where leaderboards are often used to ignite motivation. But it can also be effective within the employee population where teams might compete for special recognition by being the first to complete certification training or being the first group to use all of their allotted volunteer hours. Healthy competition at work is a good thing.

Drive fear out of the workplace.

Fear of failure, having one’s credibility questioned or getting stuck in a dead end job are negative motivations that hinders productivity. Someone who is afraid to fail is working in a toxic environment. Even worse, fear of one’s manager has long-reaching ethical and moral ramifications for the individual and ultimately, the company. Another huge problem in the workplace are cliques and ostracizing co-workers. When you see people being ignored, it’s time to react—inclusivity drives motivation.

Personal, social and cultural identity benefits are the most important benefits your company can offer in regard to employee engagement. Do the right thing, and treat others the way you want to be treated.

Give credit due where credit is due.

Coaches and good team leaders have known this for a long time—give credit to others for the win and take personal responsibility for the loss. I like to acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of individuals along the way. Yes, teamwork is essential to the health and vitality of the organization and should be recognized, but don’t overlook people who give it their all every day and are making solid strides in their accomplishments. Handing out tributes to individuals and teams is like most things in life—it’s all about balance.

Let them know how they’re doing.

Giving feedback isn’t something you do once in a while or when someone does something wrong or really great. I give ongoing feedback so my team knows when they’re heading in the right—or wrong—direction. Positive feedback has the same effect as praise—and I’ve found feedback used as a coaching tool when people are off-course can also have an encouraging influence on a person’s motivation.

Motivating people to high levels of performance isn’t impossible. While you’re figuring out how to move people forward, keep in mind that building trust and goodwill goes a long way in setting the foundation for a healthy, motivated workforce.

Want to learn more about motivation and the way it impacts today’s diverse workforce? Learn how to motivate all your employees no matter how complex when you download our ebook, 50+ Ways to Motivate Your Employees and Partners for Measurable Results.


Are Your Employees Motivated? They will be.

Rob Danna

Rob Danna

With a 25-year background in technology and sales management, Rob brings real-world performance improvement solutions to hundreds of large companies. As Vice President of Sales and Marketing at ITA Group, he prides himself by staying on the front lines of performance improvement technology and innovation.