How to Fire Up Your Team, But Not Burn Them Out!

by Bill Mansell on April 15, 2009 | Articles

Let’s face it, a shaky economic climate not only affects consumer confidence, it can also negatively impact employee morale and productivity. Negative economic news, layoffs, internal cutbacks – all whittle away at your team’s confidence and erode their productivity. And, when times are tough, you simply can’t afford to have declining productivity.

As a business owner, employer or team leader, what can you do about it? Many companies choose the path of negative motivation. The philosophy of “firings will continue until morale improves,” to quote Dr. Stephen R. Covey, may produce temporary results, but has devastating long-term impact. Some companies do nothing, hoping the problem will go away. Unfortunately, few companies realize that their most valuable asset is their workforce.

I recently had lunch with a friend who described the declining atmosphere at his job, where he has worked for nearly 20 years. Two co-owners run every aspect of the business. One “boss” decided to instigate a program of positive recognition and rewards. In the mean time, the other “boss” would take people into his office and chew them out for the slightest annoyance toward him. One particular week, my friend received a $200 award from one owner for being the outstanding employee, while at the same time being chewed out and berated by the other. Unsurprisingly, the negative cancelled out the positive, leaving my friend both confused and frustrated.

Here’s another example. If you came to my house in 1998, you would have witnessed an amazing sight. Four beautiful Colorado Spruce trees line our back yard, which boarders a middle school. These four evergreen trees give us shade and privacy all year round. So, you can imagine my surprise when one summer day, I looked out the window to see that one of the spruce trees had begun to bloom! A beautiful white plume was growing from the end of each branch, which made the entire tree look white. As we watched this stunning display that day, my wife said, “I wonder why this tree is performing so well, and the other three are just as boring as ever. Why can’t we get the other trees to bloom like that?”

Over the next few days, however, the “blooms” began to look unnatural and the tree became whiter. Within a week, it was dead. We soon discovered the reason. A small tractor that the school used to spread fertilizer had toppled over on the steep hill behind our property and dumped a huge pile of fertilizer and weed killer on the ground just on the other side of the fence from our tree. Rather than clean it up, the careless operator left the chemicals there, where sprinklers washed them to the roots of our tree.

This is what had caused the unusual “blooming” effect in our tree as it tried to cope with the unusual quantity of fertilizer along with the poison. Temporarily, it appeared to be performing better than the other trees. But soon, the effect of the chemicals overpowered the tree causing it to literally burn itself out.

As employers and team leaders, we sometimes treat our people like this poor tree. Fertilizer (encouragement and positive expectations), very effective when applied consistently in measured quantities, is heaped upon team members, along with huge workloads and unreasonable expectations. Weed killer (constructive criticism and reprimands), which should be used occasionally in measured amounts when necessary to spot treat and remove weeds, is spread around in huge quantities with reckless disregard for the resulting effect on the team member. It’s easy to resort to negative methods to try to motivate our people. These can include veiled (and not-so-veiled) threats, intimidation, incentive programs that are inconsistent or contradictory, promising more than we are willing (or able) to deliver, a “my way or the highway” mentality, etc.

Just like the tree in our backyard, negative motivation can produce results—sometimes even spectacular results—in the short term. But, the long-term affect is never good, often resulting in lower productivity, job dissatisfaction, fear, rumors, and negativism. Motivating employees takes time and effort, but it can also yield increased productivity and a more pleasant work environment.
Here are 7 quick-tips to help you fire up your team but not burn them out:

  1. Be clear about expectations. Nothing destroys employees’ drive faster than the feeling that they will never measure up to your expectations. Agree on clear, measurable objectives that you are both enthusiastic about. Then, step back and watch your people dazzle you.
  2. Have fun. Who said work had to be boring and unpleasant? Of course, there will always be tedious or disagreeable activities that must be performed. But, that doesn’t prevent us from creating a pleasant, friendly atmosphere; celebrating events and accomplishments; and enjoying the camaraderie of the workplace. It is human nature to put more thought, effort and enthusiasm into those things we enjoy.
  3. Recognize positive behavior. Answer this question. Which gets more attention at your company: when you do something right, or when you do something wrong? Remember this principle: that which is recognized and rewarded will be repeated. The sad fact is that by focusing on negative behavior and performance, we could be actually be encouraging more of the same. Instead, why not instigate a CBG campaign, which stands for Caught Being Great! Go out of your way to find and recognize positive things that are happening. It will make a difference.
  4. Tell the Truth. Believe it or not, one thing that can destroy morale faster than anything else is lack of trust. Employees know if you are stretching the truth, or being unfair. Be honest, keep your word, be fair, and never gossip. These may seem like old-fashioned values, but they are indispensible foundation stones to building an atmosphere of teamwork and loyalty.
  5. Appreciation. Remember, money is not everything. In fact, when it comes to motivating team members, money isn’t anything! What I mean is this. Money is only important when someone is looking for a job. But, once they have the job, emotionally, that money becomes baseline and they unconsciously feel that the money is owed to them just for showing up to work each day. As a business owner, you might think, “I’m paying you, aren’t I? Why do I have to appreciate your work, too?” This is a recipe for disaster. Team members crave appreciation and recognition for performing well at work. Thank them as if they were volunteers rather than paid employees. The truth is, anything that team members do, which is above the bare minimum standard of performance, IS voluntary. So why not recognize their efforts and praise them. They will be much happier and more eager to please you.
  6. Cultivate Openness. Who better to have exceptional ideas on how your business can improve than the employees themselves? Involve team members in decisions when appropriate. Have regular Personal Progress Interviews. Encourage fresh ideas and constructive feedback. You might even offer a reward for the person who comes up with an idea that you implement. Those who are able to be involved and contribute, tend to take ownership of the project and redouble their efforts.
  7. Rewards / Incentives. When planning incentive programs, take time to find out what would motivate your team members. As a sales manager for many years, I often planned incentive programs to encourage my people to set goals and increase their effort. These often included traditional rewards like exotic travel, or jewelry. But, the most effective campaigns happened when I took time to listen to my people and tailor the incentive to them. One summer, I asked one of my top performers what would motivate her. The answer? “A Barbecue Grill!” She picked out the one she wanted. I bought it and put it in our central office. You never saw anyone work harder for a little barbeque grill than she did that summer. My point is, you never know what will inspire your team unless you ask them.

If you have ideas or examples of team motivation programs that have worked for you, please share them in the comments section below.

Bill Mansell is president of MindPerk, Inc., one of the web's largest resources for self improvement and business training. A dynamic speaker and success coach, Bill is the author of a weekly blog titled, One Minute Motivators. Bill helps companies and organizations inspire and motivate their team members to consistently achieve more. His contagious enthusiasm has helped people from all walks of life to reach and exceed their goals.

has 149 articles on MindPerk.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Melissa February 21, 2012

Love the blog


Jovencio Baptista September 9, 2009

Thanks a lot for the article you share to me, regarding how to be a motivator and be a team player…………….okay

BAPTISTA, Jovencio


Janet April 16, 2009

Thanks for these thoughtful suggestions!

Here’s an idea that worked well for us. As a team we agreed that we would all work harder if we could have some down time at well. We planned a celebration party at 3:30 each Friday afternoon where we enjoyed ourselves and remembered the successes of the week. As time went on, it became a friendly competition to see who had the best “success story” of the week. It was fun, motivational, and well worth the time.

I look forward to reading other ideas that people post here.


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