Secrets To Motivating Your Staff

Lynn Homisak, PRT

Motivation does not always come wrapped in a dollar bill.Yet whenever the topic of “staff incentive” comes up, so does the topic of money. Even though I try to emphasize that it takes more than cold hard cash to incentivize staff, far too many physicians are unable to grasp this notion and keep reverting back to the bankroll in an effort to “buy” their staff ’s enthusiasm.
One survey, conducted by the late Kenneth Kovach, PhD, of the University of Maryland, found a significant disconnect between what employees actually want from a job and what managers think employees want. Kovach determined that while employers expect that money is the number one motivator, it actually ranks number five in the workplace among employees.
What are the number one and two motivators in the eyes of the employee? Interesting work and appreciation. Now that is not to say that money is not a type of incentive. It is just not the only or even the primary motivator.
Keep in mind that while good wages do not necessarily motivate staff, their absence can lead to dissatisfaction. Frederick Herzberg, PhD, also conducted similar studies more than 50 years ago and these studies illustrated that unless employees truly are underpaid, money is only a secondary concern.1

Brian Lee, a certified professional speaker and author, wrote of his experience with a woman who attended one of his seminars. This woman was convinced that she deserved to be paid at least $1,000 more a month. When Lee questioned if she would work any harder for that $1,000, she denied that she would. However, this did not change the fact that she still thought she deserved it.
Lee probed this same employee further. “If your boss really cared about you as an individual, kept you in the loop, told you how much he valued and respected your opinion and appreciated your work, then would you work harder?”
“Absolutely!” she said.
“A lot harder … wouldn’t you?” said Lee.2

Finding The Right Way To Express Genuine Appreciation

That story reminded me of one from a staff person in an office with which I consulted. The person told me, “I would clean toilet bowls for my doctor if I thought he appreciated me.” Sadly, in many cases, the employee dedication is present but never uncovered.
Granted, satisfaction surveys change as much as the times we live in change. Factors that ultimately stimulate job performance can vary somewhat based on gender, age, cultural background, experience and job position diversity. In my opinion (based on personal and observed experience), the most productive and rewarding type of motivation is self-motivation, and that can only develop and thrive when it has the proper breeding ground to do so.What triggers your staff ’s individual performance? Eliminate the guesswork and just ask them.
Aside from having the preferred oneon- one discussion with staff to determine this, you may also want to consider using a “staff survey.” The purpose of a staff survey is to open the lines of communication with your staff proactively (via their written appraisal) in an attempt to find out what you can do to make their work and work environment more pleasurable for them before they decide to leave.The fact that you care to ask and care to do something about their grumbles provides great incentives to work through the problems.
You would be surprised at how far a thank you can go. Mustering up a simple thank you for a job well done should become (if it is not already) a daily occurrence. To an employee, awareness and acknowledgement of daily accomplishments is a tremendous productivity booster. Unfortunately, in some cases, receiving voluntary appreciation is like pulling teeth but without it, employees begin thinking they cannot do anything right and may even lean toward a propensity to stop trying.
If it is a reminder mechanism you need to prompt you to express your appreciation, here is a suggestion. At the start of every day, take four quarters and put them in your left pocket. Every time you make a point of praising a staff person, remove one quarter from your left pocket and put it in your right one. By the end of each day, you should have doled out at least four compliments and all your quarters are in your right pocket. Four a day should not be a hardship.

How Empty Thanks And Compliments Can Backfire

As I noted earlier, it does not matter how you say it when it comes to acknowledging the efforts of your staff.Well, that is true in terms of what words you choose. However, do not underestimate your staff ’s ability to distinguish between honest gratitude and trivial attempts.A heartfelt pat on the back and a word of gratitude can move mountains. On the other hand, if you throw around a bunch of disingenuous “thank yous” (just to say you did) without linking them to a specific task, it is not only ineffective, it gets very old very fast.
I have a friend who approached his key staff person and, out of the clear blue sky, said to him,“You did a great job! Thank you!” The staff person responded with a quizzical look on his face and said,“Well, thanks, doc, but what job are you referring to?” His reply? “I do not know. I was told I should thank my staff so I did.”
The doctor may have had good intentions but his obvious lack of sincerity carried no weight with the employee. If this is the road you find yourself traveling, not only will you will lose credibility in the eyes of your staff but after a while, they will interpret anything you say as meaningless as your empty compliments. Be honest, deliver praise in earnest and it will be appreciably accepted.
A similar circumstance involves a practice administrator who supervised a very large multi-doctor practice with approximately 80 employees. She could not understand why her staff was suddenly not working to their full potential. We revealed (and she admitted) that she was remiss in relating to them how much she appreciated their efforts.Wanting to do the right thing, she promised she would tell each staffer how she feels.
It was a great idea but the execution was a bit amiss. In order to save time and effort, she took a shortcut and only wrote one letter, printed out 80 copies, changed the name in the salutation and sent one out to every staff person.The initial reaction was wonderful. The news traveled very quickly and within hours staff shared their “feel good” letters with their coworkers only to find that everyone’s “feel good” letters were exactly the same,word for word. In short, it was a form thank you letter.
Suddenly, the “feel good” turned into resentment. Instead of getting a standing ovation from each employee, the administrator received 80 pair of cold shoulders. The letters were meaningless. Regrettably, what could have been a sturdy bridge builder wound up creating even more walls. She resented their reaction and wound up shutting down communication further. She no longer works for that physician group.
Here is one last note on the effects of a lack of appreciation and awareness. I overheard a young baseball player say to his teammate (with the coach in earshot), “Coach only sees what he wants to. He only sees the times I miss the ball.” The coach turned to his player and assured him that coaches do see everything.
“Then why, coach, do I only hear it when I do something bad or really good? What about all the things I contribute on a regular basis that helped to make this team the best in our league? Don’t you ever notice those everyday things? Don’t they count too?” The coach still argued that he saw everything but admitted that unfortunately the “expected” things are taken for granted. From that point on, he became more aware and recognized his players, even at the unexpected times, and never missed an opportunity to verbalize his appreciation to them.
This same conversation could have easily taken place between a doctor and staff. I could not help but think how many assistants wonder if their doctors are aware of all the good that goes on around them and (like the coach) just comment on the things that go wrong. Do a check on yourself to see how aware you are of things your staff does. Be overly aware and see if you notice new things that you did not before. If you do, please let the staff know it. I feel confident that your acknowledgment will not be in vain.

Why You Should Personalize Incentives

Individuality makes a difference. People often ask me,“What can I do to motivate my staff?” I can offer them a list of things that would motivate me but not really knowing their staff, a response with anything other than nebulous suggestions would be presumptuous. In order to truly motivate someone, you need to start thinking more creatively. A better response involves first erasing the mistaken assumption that one homogeneous incentive plan will serve to motivate all the staff in the same way. It does not.
Once that is clear, do a little investigating and take an interest in your staff as individuals. Talk with staff about their hobbies and their families. By actively listening and observing, you will uncover that each of your employees has likes and dislikes, personalities and qualities all their own, and are diversely motivated because of these distinctions.
Sure, it is much easier to offer one type of incentive across the board but it is a bit naïve to think that all will respond to it similarly or even favorably. In fact, it would not be unrealistic to put five people in a room, ask what motivates them and get five different answers.Keep in mind that just because you may enjoy a night at the opera, it does not mean everyone else will.

Accordingly, before you decide to buy those pricey opera tickets to show your staff your appreciation, check and see if they would rather spend the night at the ballpark watching their favorite Major League Baseball team. If you truly want to make your efforts count, do your homework and get to know your staff well enough to recognize what is most appealing to them. Then when you give them something as unique as they are, it is 100 times more meaningful. Indeed, giving them a meaningful gift as a result of learning more about them and watching their satisfied reaction should be equally motivating to you.

How Your Leadership Can Be An Incentive

Leadership is critical and it is a skill in which doctors-turned-employers sometimes have difficulty mastering. It is not their fault. After years of education, they are anxious to get out into the world and start practicing what they were trained to do. If they are in a position of starting their own practice and suddenly find themselves faced with unfamiliar human resource issues, it is then that they wonder why they missed the very important course on leadership and management to help them through this part of their business.
Like anything, without proper training, the whole “management” piece is carelessly left to happenstance. Critical responsibilities get circumvented and the result is irritated and/or discouraged employees.
There are many factors that make a good leader but the key is setting the right example for your employees.Your behavior is going to be mirrored by your staff. If you hate coming into work everyday, so will they. If you demonstrate enthusiasm, so will they. Remember, a happy, motivated employee is a productive employee so why not wipe the dust off those neglected leadership skills and encourage a positive working environment for everyone’s sake?
Think back to the best “boss” you ever worked for.What was it about him or her that made you want to go to work each day? Was the boss fair and trustworthy? Was he or she easy to talk to and nonjudgmental? Use him or her as a model and be the “boss” that you enjoyed working for in the past.

Other Pertinent Considerations In Staff Motivation

Change can be stimulating. What are some of the most effective ways that you can motivate your staff to be more productive? Aside from the different strategies already discussed, we can revisit Kovach’s survey to learn that being informed (or “feeling in on things”) also ranks high with employees. Again, managers do not feel their staff view this as an area of importance according to the survey. They very much want to feel that their ideas have an effect on the growth and success of your practice.
Delegate new projects to them and establish realistic objectives (and monitor the progress made toward reaching them). Give them feedback and include them in practice suggestions and decisions. Encourage their development by teaching them new tasks, how to operate new equipment and perform new techniques. You may even want to recommend an occasional role reversal of staff, which would allow them to have an appreciation for and understanding of each other’s duties. This is a fine cross-training technique that offers an exchange of ideas along with the discovery of more effective approaches to efficiency.
Often, it is the unexpected things that mean the most. From a staff perspective, walking into the office in the morning and finding a Starbucks gift card on your desk or just a hot cup of coffee (or tea) or chocolate, flowers, or a unique book waiting for you is special. It could be recognizing that the staff has had an incredibly trying week and knowing that a gift certificate to a local restaurant or maybe a bottle of their favorite wine would be especially appreciated.

In Conclusion

Over the almost four decades of my career, I have heard stories from grateful doctors claiming that their staff is their greatest “asset” and tales from others who refer to their staff as their worst nightmare. If you can appreciate and understand the true value of a qualified employee and find him or her “indispensable,” then you get the secret. However, if you do not insist on hiring the best people and providing excellent working conditions, management, communication, leadership skills, growth opportunities, words of encouragement and appreciation, you are missing out on the most critical investment into your practice. There is still time to change. So tell me, what would it take to incentivize you?

Ms. Homisak is a team partner and practice management consultant with SOS Healthcare Management Solutions, LLC ( She has a Certificate of Human Resource Studies and is a Past Vice President of the American Academy of Podiatric Practice Management.



1. Gater L. Practice Management. Podiatry Online, 2005. Retrieved May 10, 2008, from Podiatry Online: http://www.podiatryonline. com/main.cfm?pg=human&fn=incentives
2. Lee B.Articles: EndoNurse, 2001. Retrieved May 8, 2008, from EndoNurse Website: ees/591_1c1feat6.html

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