Employee Motivation: Can It Be Done?

Employee Motivation: Can It Be Done?

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The author of this highly rated article is Stef du Plessis, CSP.
Keynote Speaker, Strategic Facilitator, Workshop Presenter, Intervention Leader
If you want more valuable advice from this expert, click here.

You can’t motivate your employees. Never been done. Can’t be done. Not by anyone. Not now, not ever.
Pretty bleak sentiment… especially coming from someone who is currently busy writing a doctoral thesis on motivation and leadership, and who consults and speak worldwide on “employee motivation”! So perhaps I should qualify this bleak sentiment…

  • You can’t motivate your employees. You can however inspire your people to motivate themselves. This is not about semantics: it lies at the very core of the issue.
  • There are no quick fixes. No single intervention can possibly bring about lasting change within your organisation. But if you are committed to making yours a better place to be, and if you have courage, you can facilitate perpetual improvement.
  • Paradise is closed for business. But you can create an environment conducive to growth and prosperity. This is however not for the feint hearted… it’s reserved exclusively for the bold and the brave.
  • Motivational Speakers are nothing more than expensive entertainers… when it comes to once off talks. Remember that this comes from a “motivational speaker” who has delivered some 2 500 paid presentations for some of the world’s leading corporations over the past decade. But those speakers who are truly capable of inspiring your people, and who offer follow-through programmes to help sustain growth and development, will liberate your people. They will help your organisation to achieve legendary status, and the investment you make in true workplace development will turn out to be the very best one you ever make. Period.


Because you can grow your business by growing your people. To use the correct jargon, what you want to do is increase the outputs of your people… but this will only happen if you can change their behaviour… and there are only two ways of doing this:

  • Strict enforcement of stringent rules and regulations.
  • Value based living.

You don’t need us motivators to do the first. However, the answer lies in the second option… and you’ll probably need the help of a gifted inspirator, who also has a solid background when it comes to HRD and OD interventions. But how?
Before we can deal with the “how”, remember that organisations fail for one of three reasons:

  • The people don’t agree on where they’re going, or
  • They don’t agree on how they’re going to get there, or
  • They don’t agree on why they are going there.

This leads to another quick interjection: although we’re dealing with motivation, and not management, the following analogy on management and leadership provides a solid underscore for understanding employee motivation… I’d give credit to the source, but it is unknown to me.
Old-style management is like the octopus, while leadership is like the goose. The octopus has as aim to get the tentacles to do what needs to be done to get the organisation to where it wants to go. The snag is that when the central brain is on vacation, the tentacles don’t function.
The goose, on the other hand, is quite different. She envisages the winter frost, and visualises the sunny beaches a continent away. She formulates a vision, a mission, a strategy and a plan. She communicates this with the rest of the flock. And, on the right day, all those in the flock who want to migrate to the same place, rise up as one. They fly in a formation that is some 70% more efficient than any other. Every goose in the flock is an empowered navigator, and they can all read the winds… so they take turns to fly up front. You see, they want to go to the same place, because it’s better there. And they’ll do whatever it takes to get there. Leadership, then, is about helping your people to do what they know has to be done, to get to where they want to go.


How do we achieve this in organisations? By helping our people to see the benefits of coming with us to that new place in the sun (where there is enough sunshine to go ‘round). But the entire flock needs to want to migrate – they all need to see what’s in it for them. This is an all or nothing deal. Those who don’t want to migrate to the same place don’t belong on the team.
Next, we have to make sure that we are going there for the right reason: this is called alignment.
Then we must ensure that out people are equipped for the journey: they must have the capacity to change.
Finally, we need an actionable flight plan.
Some people look at teams who operate like this, and say: “Gee. They’re a motivated bunch!” In truth though, these teams don’t do what they do because they’re motivated. They’re motivated because they do the right stuff, in the right way, at the right time, for the right reason.
Remember this one? If you do what you have to do when you have to do it, you’ll be able to do what you want to do when you want to do it.
No rocket science here. Simple stuff.


Employee motivation is a process, not an event. One of the underlying cornerstones is to have a Code of Conduct to which all employees subscribe. Again, there are two ways of going about this. One: Any half competent executive team can slap together a behavioural code within the hour. But it won’t work. People support what they help create. And there is no fooling them. They see through the illusion of “window dressing” a pre-decided deal.
Two: The people develop their own code. This takes time, and it costs money. You’ll probably have to employ the services of a competent facilitator. You’ll loose valuable production time. It will be frustrating. If your industry is unionised, you’ll have to extend them an invite. Time and effort. Lot’s of it. But it’s a worthwhile endeavour.
Unfortunately though, there is a step that comes before the drafting of the code. And it will take more time, and cost more money.
First, you’ll have to develop a set of values. As was the case above, there are two options. I’ll skip option one. It doesn’t work. Option two is to help each of your people to develop their own personal set of values. Everyone – without exception.
Next, teams at all levels have to develop team values. Again, this is a facilitated process. Depending on the size of the workforce this can become an extended process. But by the end of the process, your people will know who they are, what they stand for, where they’re going, and they will agree on how they are going to get there.


The process of “employee motivation” is based on top-down sharing of the vision, and bottom-up participation in getting there. What you want to do is transform your organisation to a place where people at all levels decide for themselves… where teams are self-directed. Where people decide on how to go about their lives based on their values, and not according to rules and procedures. A place where we have a participative value system.
Based on these values, we develop a Code of Conduct for each and every team. This guides us in our day-to-day activities, and helps us to make the right decisions.
Then we must celebrate our successes. Big time.
Finally, we have to sustain employee motivation. You can do this by constantly reminding your people of what your values are. Constantly. Same reason they hold church every Sunday… mosque on Friday’s, or why we go to shul on Saturday. Remember though that you have to do more than talk: you have to walk the talk, and live by our code.

“Motivational” sessions have a definitive place: but it’s preventative, rather than being a cure. It’s the vitamin injection, or the flu vaccine. A quick boost from time to time keeps the spirit up… renewing the desire in your people to make a difference, along with the realisation that they can.
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