How Do You Motivate Office Staff?

Lynn Homisak, PRT

Motivating your employees is not always as simple as writing a check or a form letter thanking them for their service. This author draws on real-life scenarios to present the most effective ways of encouraging staff to perform to the best of their abilities, and provides advice on avoiding the inherent pitfalls.

Wouldn’t it be great if the answer to this question were as easy as pulling out your trusted Employee Cookbook and following a recipe? Let’s see. What ingredients will I need to make a “motivated employee?” Ah, here it is! Start with a fair amount of wages and a generous portion of necessary training. Toss in a few measureable goals, a dash of recognition and plenty of support. Then gently fold in large quantities of honest praise and appreciation, place it in a pleasant social and physical environment with plenty of room to grow and voila! A first-rate employee rises to perfection.

   That is basically it in a nutshell but is this formula foolproof? Well, like any good recipe, following directions to a “T” will help ensure success while cutting corners, substituting quality or omitting ingredients usually leads to a flop.

   When we read about motivation or building staff morale, it is no surprise that survey after survey shows that employees would prefer working in an environment like the one mentioned above and some doctors, to their credit, understand that these factors provide the foundation for a satisfied staff. This is the very mechanism that sparks increased productivity, improved performance and motivation. It is a win-win path to a successful practice.

   It is the point at which these management-conscious doctors feel they need to energize their staff even more to avoid complacency that they ask, “Now what? What else can I do to sustain motivation and tap into their true potential? This is a fair question. Yet if you ask 25 different people what type of motivational tool works best to propel staff to achieve above and beyond expectations, you will likely get 25 different responses. Some tools will work some of the time but none of them will be effective across the board all the time with all employees.

   In my travels, I have encountered the most creative and the most absurd incentive plans. Here is the simple truth. The most attractive, genuine motivator, the very critical icing on the cake that is often overlooked, is tapping into who your staff people are.

   Often, employers forget that the members of their team are people first, employees second. Each individual has his or her own unique set of characteristics that push or motivate him or her into action. Given that these distinctive drivers are heavily rooted in their own social and family values, philosophies, religion, attitudes and perceptions, it makes it easy to understand why they are all so diverse. Likes and dislikes vary as do people’s behaviors, skills, strengths and weaknesses. Maybe the only thing they have in common is that they all work in the same office.

   What is the bottom line? There is no “surefire” recipe, not one guaranteed way you can entice staff to work harder, not one kind of homogeneous carrot you can dangle on the end of a string that is guaranteed to knock all their socks off. Those who believe in a unilateral mentality and insist that a one of a kind tactic works in all cases are usually left confused and even a little resentful when their well-intentioned and sometimes expensive efforts do not result in an outpouring of appreciation. I have seen cases like this “flop” over and over again. Maybe you can even relate to one or two of them.

Rewarding Employees With What They Really Appreciate

During a visit to one client’s office, I was excited to learn I would witness the doctor presenting his long-time receptionist, Carly, with an “award” for meeting a collections goal they both had set earlier in the year. His intent in presenting her with this reward was to thank her and at the same time motivate her to continue similar excellent efforts throughout the next year. He remembered how much his office manager, Anita, had enjoyed the opera tickets he had given her the year before so at the very last minute, he jumped online to purchase two of the best opera tickets he could find, thinking what worked for Anita would surely work for Carly.

   When the time came, with misplaced excitement, he handed her two of the finest tickets to see La Boehme with a “thanks” and a pat on the back for her hard work. When presented with the tickets, she was visibly underwhelmed. Not wanting to appear ungrateful, she thanked him out of politeness but barely cracked a smile in the process.

   Carly later revealed to me that while she appreciated his desire to reward, she was disappointed because while his actions meant to compliment her work efforts, it also spoke volumes of his lack of interest in her as a person.

   “Honestly, I didn’t expect anything,” she said. “I met that goal because it gave me a personal sense of accomplishment. If he knew me at all, he’d have known I’m not at all a fan of the opera. In fact, we even laughed about how the opera was not my cup of tea when he gave Anita her tickets. I know so much about him. You would think I would after 10 years of working together. But I never realized he didn’t have an ounce of interest in my life. If he did, he’d have known that I would have been thrilled with two tickets to see a ballgame.”

   This doctor’s attempt to motivate Carly failed and, in fact, left her hurt and disappointed. Had he taken the time to get to know her, the right incentive would have made a wonderful difference. It is so much harder to make things right than to get things right.

   One of the characteristics of an excellent manager is taking a healthy interest in the staff’s lives outside of the office. That doesn’t mean managers have to live with them or be their counselor. It means making attempts to increase employee engagement by tuning in every now and then to special events that are meaningful to them and/or their family. This social interaction allows more personal insight into not only who they are but also how to be more responsive to their needs, which in turn strengthens the employer-employee work relationship.

   According to Jack Canfield, a leading management authority, a recent management study revealed that 61 percent of surveyed employees said their bosses don’t place much importance on them as people and that has a negative effect on employees.1 Treating employees more like people also means valuing their ideas, feedback and decisions involving practice improvement. The more employees become invested in the practice, the more they are motivated, creating a cycle of improved productivity. Any employer would be foolish not to tap into that very present and influential resource.

A Little Personalization Goes A Long Way

I sat down with Pat, the office manager for a multi-doctor, multi-location practice. I had heard she was a good business manager but a little rough around the edges and not well liked by her 28 employees. My job was to help make her a more effective leader.

   Pat’s resistance was evident. She didn’t feel she needed my help and blamed the “the uncooperative, unmotivated staff” for all the difficulties that had recently been occurring. When I asked for specific examples, she informed me that a management strategy recommended to her (letting the staff know you appreciate them) worked in reverse and actually turned them against her.

   “I thought I’d follow the advice of the ‘experts’,” she said cynically, “so I wrote a really nice letter of appreciation and sent a copy to every staff person’s email box (all 28 of them).”

   I stopped her for clarification. “You mean, you sent the same exact letter to each staff person and let them believe that they were the only one to receive it?”

   “Yes,” she continued. “At first, it was great. Several of them came to me and said how nice it was that I took the time to acknowledge them in writing. But once they started talking to each other, they learned that everyone received the same email. Now none of them are talking to me and my situation is worse than before. See? Appreciation is not all that it is cut out to be.”

   Pat’s dilemma was self-provoked. Words are cheap but if they are used to convey sincere appreciation, words can also be extremely motivating. A simple verbal “thank you” is sometimes all it takes to make an impact. Her words, even though delivered through an unemotional email vehicle, came across to her staff as unexpected and encouraging. At first, each staff member believed he or she received an individual note of appreciation and it sparked a motivation to work more closely with her. When they later discovered that her words were nothing more than a general “form letter” passed around like a cheap bottle of wine, they had even less respect for her than before.

   This was another case in which a lack of individual recognition proved tragic. Had she made a genuine effort to speak to each of them personally, looked them in the eye and expressed her appreciation for each one separately, Pat could have won them over with sincerity and turned this story completely around.

   How do recognition and appreciation correlate with staff motivation? A major reason that 79 percent of people leave their jobs is a lack of recognition or appreciation.2 Consider the related conclusions drawn from 653 randomly selected, fully employed respondents in a recent survey.3

• 82 percent said that being recognized for their efforts/contributions at work motivates them in their jobs.
•78 percent said they would work harder if their efforts were better recognized and appreciated.
• 64 percent said they do not feel appreciated at work.

   One of the five findings stated in the final analysis of this report was “Appreciation is the foundation for motivation.”3 Based on the amount of correspondence I have had with staff members over the years who have shared similar sentiments, I have found this to be true in an overwhelming number of podiatry offices.

Don’t Use A Lack Of Rewards To Teach Staff A Lesson

This last case was a test in “what if?” What if staff were suddenly “cut off” from receiving their annual end of year bonus? Would morale come to a crashing halt?

   This was Dr. Joe’s quandary. Dr. Joe was the owner of a very successful, busy four-doctor practice with an inspired team of 20+ staff members. Other than a few minor personality conflicts (nothing too unusual under the circumstances), and a few operational weaknesses, his practice was for the most part a model office. Everyone pulled his or her own weight. The practice was financially stable and saw a lot of patients.

   Somewhere along the line, however, Dr. Joe became a little bothered by their attitude. While he was pleased with their work activity, he couldn’t help but feel that they were taking advantage of his good nature and generosity over the past several years, and it all came to a head when the annual holiday party rolled around. Soon after I arrived, Dr. Joe disclosed to me that he was thinking of discontinuing his tradition of giving out annual bonuses because last year, he received only one or two “thank yous.” He felt the staff was ungrateful and inconsiderate. Dr. Joe felt that the bonus had become an “expectation” and he saw no good reason to continue it. “Maybe skipping it this year will teach them a lesson, don’t you think?”

   He wanted me to agree with him and from a purely emotional perspective, I almost wanted to. I too wondered about their manners but I couldn’t agree with the doctor. I knew what the repercussions of such an extreme move would have on this otherwise very motivated, productive team and the backlash it would have on his practice.

   I explained that there is usually a deeper reason for things we only sometimes see on the surface. While it did appear that the staff looked at the bonus as an expectation of their employment rather than an appreciation, the much bigger issue revolved around a lack of communication and understanding. You have heard it said many times before: It all starts at the top. Maybe if Dr. Joe had conveyed his gratitude when giving the bonus, the staff would have attached relevance to his actions.

   “If you’ve given bonuses out of resentment,” I told him, “chances are they’ve sensed that. Now if you take them away completely with no explanation whatsoever, it will have a serious negative impact on their attitude and consequently, it will threaten their work performance. The bottom line is they could easily misinterpret your rationale and think you were punishing them for their work, which is the furthest thing from the truth.”

   In order to keep their motivation (and work effort) high and intact, I suggested that he keep the bonuses in, but take a different approach in how he presents them. “Instead of just passing out envelopes and waiting for their response, make an event of it this year. After shouting, ‘drum roll, please!’ ask for their attention and in an impromptu leadership speech, convey your appreciation to them. Talk about the value that each one of them brings to the practice and tie it to the reason for the bonus. Then call each staff person up, hand them the bonus and thank them for their efforts over the past year. In the end, you won’t only get your verbal ‘thank yous’ but a lot of smiles and maybe even a standing ovation as well. If you make a deliberate point of tying this bonus ‘reward’ to their importance to the practice and make a big deal out of it, there is a good reason to believe they will too.”

   Dr. Joe explained he was never really against handing out bonuses. He was merely jaded by their thankless reaction. Truth is, the distribution of bonuses was something he really enjoyed and always thought it was partially responsible for the high morale of the practice. At the same time, he also acknowledged that his staff rarely gets a verbal “thank you” from him and decided he was going to make more of a point of saying it. Had this “what if” of discontinuing bonuses happened, it could have had an irreversible impact on this very dedicated staff but because he turned it around, it opened the door to overall renewed staff enthusiasm.

Final Thoughts

These stories are real (names have been changed to protect the guilty) and yet, many doctors remain skeptical that appreciation can motivate their staff. They still hold tight to the fact that money is the only real “reward” that will catapult ordinary employees into superstars.
I will be honest. I have never met a person who refused more money in his or her paycheck so on some level, money is indeed a factor in increasing levels of excitement and productivity. However, these incentives are short lived. They are no different than a crash diet. Both fail because the commitment necessary to achieve a lasting and improved outcome is not there and without real sustenance, old behaviors soon return.

   Good wages have their place and although they cannot buy motivation, their absence leads to dissatisfaction. This is understandable given that wages are what employees use to measure their worth. If you are familiar with the theory of “wage efficiency,” you understand that offering a higher than market-clearing wage attracts an improved applicant pool and results in a better than average worker, one with increased output and morale.

   I don’t believe there is ever just one universal reward that sparks people to action. Instead, there are a number of different motivators, driven by each individual’s needs. For example, why does one run a race? Is it just to receive a monetary reward or a ribbon, or because it gives the person an internal feeling of accomplishment and self-fulfillment? Maybe some do it for public recognition, just to prove that they can, as a means of exercise or because their doctor recommended it for a healthier heart. You can’t know what motivates people unless you ask and this is true with your staff as well.

   In addition to fair wages, remember that employees also need empowerment, interesting work, attitudinal buy-in, respect, job security, loyalty and fairness. Importantly, as I previously mentioned, employees have the need to be recognized and acknowledged as individuals.

   That said, I believe that the most powerful motivators are those spontaneous, original and thought out acts of kindness, like knowing how your staff takes their cup of coffee and having one unexpectedly waiting for them when they arrive on a dreary Monday morning. It is something with personal meaning attached that really hits home. Perhaps it is remembering their work anniversary and celebrating it by taking them out to lunch. Maybe you leave their favorite snack on their desk. Another approach might be writing a personal thank you note just to say what a good job they are doing or acknowledging a completed task. If you really don’t know what motivates your staff, now is as good a time as any to find out.

   Accordingly, I pose to each of you this challenge, which will prove to be both eye opening and stimulating. Do yourself and your practice a favor by getting to know your staff better. Ask them what incentivizes them. One of the easiest ways to do this is by using a written survey. If you are serious about learning meaningful ways to motivate your staff and you are up to the task, I will send an “As we learn, we grow” survey template to you to help get you started. Email and let success begin.

   Ms. Homisak, the President of SOS Healthcare Management Solutions, has a Certificate in Human Resource Studies from the Cornell University School of Industry and Labor Relations, and a Certificate in Health Coaching from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition. She is recognized nationwide as a speaker, writer and expert in staff and human resource management.

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