I am a manager with fairly high performance demands working in a company that absolutely condones poor performance.  At a corporate level, the companies goals and my own align very well but I find that by the time we reach our direct support employees (whom I manage), laziness, slacking off and using company property/time for personal goals is not only normal but rewarded.  

In the small area of the company I manage I have worked to impart my own work ethic and high standards on my team with some success.

However, I run into a stumbling point when my employees ask me why we should work so hard when other teams slack off and with little consequence.  I have no answer for them as the company's pay is truly atrocious and no consequences ever seem to land on the other supervisors' team.  There are no rewards in place for exceptional employees either except for the occasional bit of praise.  

I have spoken to my director several times and while she shows interest in remedying these problems, her constant workload and the fact that is a culture that pervades the entire company mean that not much happens.  

What should my move be?  Should I cut my team some slack on less important tasks to keep them on board with the most important stuff or should I maintain my high standards at the expense of my employees trust?

mattpalmer's picture

"Because you want to do a good job and be proud of what you've achieved."

Salary isn't motivation, it's compensation for the inconvenience of having to spend time doing work when you'd probably prefer to be reading a book or whatever.  You should never imagine that giving someone a pay rise will truly motivate them to work harder, because it won't -- at best, you'll get a temporary burst of activity, right up until the new salary becomes "normal", and then you're back where you started.  Paying a higher salary is about attracting and retaining good people, not about motivating them once they're there.

Motivation comes from within.  You can help people to *feel* motivated, but the actual will to get something done is entirely from inside.  Making people feel like they're appreciated, and that their contribution matters, are huge contributors to motivation and engagement, and feeling like you're improving is up there too.  Guess what?  That's one O3s, feedback, and coaching all provide.  Roll those out and you'll easily have the best performing team in the company.

If you feel the need to show appreciation, think of company-permissible ways to do it.  If you've got any budget yourself (or you can wangle it out of your director, or even pay for it yourself if you can), consider sneaking the team out for a lunch somewhere when a milestone is achieved.  Alternately, what about under-the-table time off?  I'd be surprised if you couldn't cover for a member of your team having a much-needed long weekend if that's what it took to make someone feel a bit more appreciated.

Finally, remember that while your company may not be making life any easier for you, responsibility for your peoples' performance is still yours.  If you surrender control and say "nothing can be done", you will be far less happy (and motivated) than if you accept the things you cannot change, and work out how to produce a high-performing team with the meagre tools at your disposal.

phale's picture

I agree completely.  My personal expectations for myself and my team are doing good work for its own sake.

I run into problems because my team works with other supervisors' teams for at least 50% of their day.  Usually more.  Each and every one of my directs has mentioned the phrase "being taken advantage of" by other employees in O3 and it is -decimating- morale.  Some employees do 5x the work while others text, call, run out on 2 hour lunches/ 45 minute smoke breaks etc. and there is little difference in rewards or recognition.  Low pay means that while I can work WITH my team, your average hire has very low internal motivation.  VERY low.  And requires a lot of work, which few supervisors put in.

I like the company and what we do but I do understand culture is a slow moving thing.  What's my move?

dmb41carter36's picture

The issues you outlined are a manifestation of senior management leadership.

The way I see it, you have two options. One is to simply keep your nose to the ground. Hopefully, promotions will come your way. When they do, you will be one of the people that can actually impact the culture change. You will have a much better chance to hold the other teams accountable. This happens to me often when I am training people. They get frustrated and see others not working to standards. I always tell them, change in leadership starts one manager at a time. Hopefully, that manager is you, the hard working person with high standards. You get enough of these type of people or the top person is dynamic, and bam: Culture change.

The other option is to leave the firm. I can tell you that the majority of work places I encounter are high pressure cookers. Tons of work to go around. People constantly complain about stressful workloads and "not enough people".

Lastly, can I ask what type of industry you are in? Are you a non-profit? Retail? Industrial?

Is your firm public or private? Most public companies will rigorously root out "additional headcount" and therefore laziness is not typically an issues that rises to the surface by the sheer nature of the company always pushing out the bottom 10%.


mattpalmer's picture

I can't imagine that the other managers in the organisation are being fastidious with giving their people affirming feedback (and adjusting feedback, when required).  That is the best form of recognition to get -- someone is recognising your achievement.  Sure, they may not get lucite slabs (google "Microsoft lucite slab") or a bonus, but if that's the only thing keeping someone going, you have failed your people monumentally.

phale's picture


I'm fairly new to the company and I've already seen one large promotion.  Your option one is essentially the plan I've been following and it's working fairly well.  

My company is a non-profit, "additional headcount" and "pushing out the bottom 10%" are not only unheard of but completely taboo.  This is my biggest problem with the company.  Removing our worst performers would almost immediately increase performance among the remaining employees (and I don't mean that in a "oh god am I next" sort of a way). Additionally, while some of our programs are union, complicating the issue, mine is not.


I agree that feedback is not given to the degree it is needed, or at all honestly.  Unfortunately, its a near impossibility to give feedback across teams without stepping on the other supervisors' toes, in their minds, often.  As I mentioned in the non-profit bit above, poor performers are almost never removed and sometimes those poor performers are other supervisors which is a tragedy for their teams.

Also, I read the Microsoft story.  Really awesome.  Makes a strong point.

Thank you for all your help!

techmgr's picture
Training Badge

I really have to disagree strongly with the oversimplification that salary increase isn't a motivational tool. Yes, I want to know that I'm appreciated, and that my contribution matters - and the way a company demonstrates that appreciation can vary, but salary is a huge part of the formula.

Some folks simply don't earn much money. Perhaps that's never been an issue for you, or for many MT readers, but it's a basic fact of life for many employees. Getting a raise so that you can start making a real dent in your student loan debt, putting money aside for a vacation once a year, or for your kid's education - this is very real stuff. You can't pay for that with words of appreciation.

For me, I know that I do a great job that helps my company's bottom line, and being appreciated is a bare minimum for me hanging around. I'm looking for opportunities for promotion, and I'm looking for salary increases to recognize my contributions and to say - hey, we want you to keep doing this, this is good stuff. A long weekend, a free lunch, praise - all good stuff, and nothing that helps me meet my real world needs.

Not everyone is motivated by salary, but plenty of people are. People are also motivated by how they perceive they are compensated and rewarded relative to other people in the company. So my suggestion is that we not oversimplify by saying that salary "never" motivates. You can argue the semantics, and I get that only I can motivate myself, but there's a real world where things cost money, and my ability to buy those things (such as a decent retirement) is a key motivator for me, and I would bet that it is for many of your directs.


mattpalmer's picture

Phale, I'm not suggesting that you give feedback to people in other teams.  That isn't your place to do so, and as you say, it'll just step on the other supervisors' toes.  I read your original question, though, as asking "how do I motivate *my* team?", or rather "how do I answer the question why we should work so hard?'".  For that, you treat *your* team like a group of mature, productive professionals, and they'll (for the most part) step up to the plate.  The best way to change *other* supervisors is to do an awesome job, get promoted above them to increase your sphere of influence, and then start applying the same techniques to them and getting them to apply it to their directs.

Your move, ultimately, *may* be to another organisation which doesn't suck as much.  It's wrenching, especially if you're at an organisation whose mission you really care deeply about, but if you really don't get the tools you need, well, there's no point being there because you won't achieve the mission anyway.

Jeanne, the plural of "anecdote" is not "data".  You're trying to mix a whole bunch of emotional stories together to support a conclusion that is simply unsupported by any available evidence.  Yes, if people aren't paid enough to enable them to survive, they won't do their best work, but increasing their salary isn't providing them motivation, it's removing stressors in their lives to allow them to focus more on their work.

Unsurprisingly, if you take people who are worried about how they're going to clothe their kids, and give them enough money so they can live in reasonable accommodation, eat well, and look after their family, they'll almost certainly do better at work, but correlation is not causation.  They're doing better because the rest of their life isn't dragging them down, not because they got more money and thought "Well, now I'm going to do better at work".

There is no actual *evidence* that increasing salary, in and of itself, increases productivity.  On the contrary, there are plenty of studies that show that providing material rewards directly linked to performance destroys intrinsic motivation, and extrinsic motivations aren't nearly as powerful.  A good general overview of the research in this area is  The beginning of that article mentions the "happiness plateau" for salary -- suggested to be somewhere in the vicinity of $75k in the US.  Again, that doesn't mean that increasing someone's salary if it's less than that will make them more motivated directly, it merely means that they'll be happier overall, and happy employees are, all things being equal (which they never are) more productive employees.

If you'd like to generate a bit of counterdata, I strongly encourage you to do so.  A simple experiment would be enough.  Give a randomly-selected half of your team a 50% pay increase.  Measure their increase in productivity.  It should be relatively easy to get senior management buy-in on this experiment, because if it's successful, given the overhead that each warm body incurs (space, equipment, management) a 50% increase in productivity for a 50% increase in base salary will result in a greater-than 50% increase in net profit.  Hell, give everyone a 1000% increase in salary!

However, unless you're paying seriously substandard wages already, I would be surprised if you got *any* measurable increase in productivity over the long term, let alone a full 50%.  You'd almost certainly get a short-term increase, because a pay increase is interpreted by most people as "I'm appreciated!".  The motivator isn't *actually* the money, it's the message.  Unless you're planning on handing out pay increases every couple of months to keep up the feeling of being appreciated, the effect will wear off, and pretty soon productivity will revert to its natural levels.

As a second part to the experiment, make it public knowledge that a salary increase was given.  You're likely to see a serious *drop* in productivity from the half of the team who didn't benefit from the windfall.  That doesn't show that salary is a motivator, though.  What's *actually* happening there is that those who didn't get the increase received the message "you are less valuable than these other people".  Ouch.

Part three of the experiment would be to give those who originally missed out the pay increase.  I'd expect you'd be lucky to get people back to their pre-experiment levels of productivity, though, let alone get 50% more out of them.  Why the paradox?  Because SALARY IS NOT A MOTIVATOR.  Being told you're valued is a small motivator (apply frequently for best results), and being told you *aren't* valued is a large demotivator (avoid at all costs).  It actually turns out that most negative things have far more impact than a corresponding positive thing.  People are *weird*.

The internal story that "I don't work harder because I'm underpaid" is nothing more than a post-hoc justification for someone who doesn't want to do their job.  The real reason they don't want to do their work is almost certainly the company's fault -- don't think that I'm blaming employees here, because I'm not -- but the real reason for the lack of productivity is more likely that they have no indication that their work is meaningful and contributes to anything, or that they have no idea whether they're any good at their job, and they have no way of knowing how to get better at it.  Those are the things that make people want to do their best and most valuable work -- not more money.  

There is one area where salary is a motivator: changing jobs.  If you find that you can do the same work for more money (and no loss of other things you value, like free time, sleep, and the quality of your colleagues, management, and workspace) then you're probably very, very motivated to change jobs.  This is why I wrote previously that salary is a *retention* tool, not a motivation tool.  Even then, though, the main reason that money is a consideration is because the job market is a "market for lemons" (Google shall provideth), and the only real factors that can be compared directly between jobs are salary and other headline benefits -- so that's what people compare.

In case anyone thinks that I'm some sort of slave-driving minimum-wage-loving corporate taskmaster: I'm in the process of making a case that average salaries at my company should be raised this year by a significant percentage, because I think that our staff are underpaid for the work they do.  The first question out of my mouth when talking to an outsourced traineeships provider was "can I pay my trainees higher than the rates you're quoting here?".  I want to pay people well -- as well as makes any sort of economic sense.  But I'm driven by a desire to attract and retain top people, not because I believe that giving a particular individual more money is going to make them produce more.

I'm loud and abrasive on the subject of "salary as a motivation tool" because I've seen "oh, just give them a payrise" used as an "easy option" rather than providing EFFECTIVE MANAGEMENT.  It feels right at a first glance, and it's easier to throw money at people than it is to learn how to make them feel appreciated and useful, and I WANT IT TO STOP.  In small part, I want it to stop because it's damaging to companies, but mostly I want it to stop because it's deadly to individuals.  The internal story that your salary is the entireity of your value to the human race is a soul-destroying one, and the more it is misleadingly perpetuated the more people end up feeling miserable, endlessly chasing one more payrise because "*that* will make me happy, I know it will"... ugh.  No.

techmgr's picture
Training Badge


I will briefly respond.
the plural of "anecdote" ...
I'm not an anecdote. One person, one experience, is a datum. And I've just offered you some "counter data" to your statement that salary is "never" a motivator. Daily interactions with real people is data. Just because it's not published in some survey result doesn't mean it's not data. 
a whole bunch of emotional stories ...
What are we talking about, if not the very emotion of feeling motivated? I'm making my evidence available, offering just a few examples of why I, and people I know well, have at times been motivated to perform by salary increases and bonuses.
if people aren't paid enough to enable them to survive ...
I mentioned travel, retirement savings, sending your kid to college. I am not talking about performing better at work because I can afford to eat a good breakfast. It's about making choices, and personal sacrifices, in the hopes of getting that promised bonus for completion ahead of schedule. I'm making well above this "happiness plateau"  for salary, and I'm still highly motivated by the promise of that bonus. 
So, I am a counter datum to your statement (caps are yours): "SALARY IS NOT A MOTIVATOR". 

mattpalmer's picture

If salary motivates you to work harder, why haven't you struck a deal with your boss to double your salary in exchange for double the productivity?  As I mentioned previously, it makes far more sense to increase the productivity of existing workers than to hire more of them.  Any rational boss, presented with clear evidence that you *are* capable of delivering on your side of the bargain, should jump at such a chance.

At any rate, Manager Tools is about 90% of the people, 90% of the time.  Presenting a number of anecdotes ("a few examples of why I, and people I know well") is not a helpful contribution to managerial effectiveness in the general sense, and is downright dangerous insofar as it perpetuates the myth that giving people more money is any substitute for giving people what *really* motivates them: a sense of purpose and expertise.

DRD282's picture
Licensee BadgeTraining Badge

By way of providing another potential framework for your disagreement:

I have heard research (I wish I could remember the source, but it was over a year ago and I don't) that talked about money as motivation vs. intrinsic motivation. Their findings were the same that we have all heard: that more money did *not* motivate employees, in general. However, their additional findings were that  there was a minimum threshold below which employees were severely *dis*-motivated (I know that's not a word). 

So, much like "negative reinforcement" is providing reinforcement by removing a negative stimulus (as opposed to punishment, which we all know is generally not operant conditioning for an explanation of the difference), raising a salary above that minimum threshold removes that demotivator and reinforces positive behavior (so long as the removal of the stimulus is directly connected to their actions). This will have the same net effect that motivation has to an outsider. But it only works *up to a point.* That is, once you've removed that negative stimulus, you can't remove it more. That's much more apparent in traditional negative reinforcement scenarios, but it's appropriate here, as well. You go from negative reinforcement to straight up reward, and as any amount of research has shown, rewards don't really work.

mjwills's picture
Training Badge

I have found Dan Pink's book on motivation quite helpful. There is a video taster as well.


I agree with Matt Palmer's general point concerning intrinsic motivation as well. Its fantastic when staff are intrinsically motivated.

maura's picture
Training Badge


Why should you work so hard when other teams slack off, and with little consequence?  Because right is right, even if you are the only one doing it. 

I do think there is a happy medium, though, between throwing your hands up and sinking to where the rest of the company is, versus asking "too much too soon" and having a revolt on your hands.  Take baby steps.  It will probably be extremely painful for you to settle for one step when you know your goal is miles away, but it's just the first step.  Be exceedingly patient, but equally persistent.  Bring them along slowly  - pay attention to who is open to new ways of thinking, interacting, and behaving, and  encourage THEM in whatever ways you're able to, based on that individual's preferences.  If you don't know, ask them.

And at the same time, stay on your director to try and secure some sort of reward system for good behavior.  See what you can do to lighten up her workload so she has a little time to think it through, or bring her some ideas that won't take much effort on her part to implement.