Hi Andy and Emma,

How do you handle keeping your team motivated at an office with, arguably, too many benefits and perks? For example, free lunch, massages, etc.

Emma: The pesky thing about perks is that, while they can make a good thing great, they can’t make a bad thing good. At least not for long.

Andy: Nope. Just like any other thing you can buy, perks do not guarantee happiness. They may seem shiny and appealing. They might give a brief surge of joy, even motivation. Before long, though, they’re the norm — and can end up as a source of dissatisfaction. I’ve certainly been there: “Hey! My free lunch is late!”

But even knowing all that, it’s a pretty short walk to feeling annoyed with a pampered team. How can they be unhappy when we’re being offered so much?

Emma: Totally agree. I think one of the hardest emotions managers have to fight is wanting our people to be grateful. To feel lucky to get the perks, to be satisfied by the salary, to want to do the work. I mean, that’s what motivation is: long-term, sustainable desire to do the work.

Andy: Are we sounding a little too Puritanical? “The work is reward itself!”

Emma: Lol, let me confirm that I am all about those perks. Pay for my bus pass, stock the fridge with Diet Coke, throw in some 401(k) matching, and let’s get down to business. But it’s telling that the job I was at the shortest — a mere six months before I bailed — had far and away the best perks of my career. Restaurant-quality lunch and breakfast, free yoga every day, catered happy hours every Friday, off-site rafting trips, endless swag, a big, fat paycheck.

And yet for the 35+ hours a week I wasn’t going hard on perks, I was sitting on a dysfunctional team with an absent boss, working aimlessly on projects that never got off the ground. I was miserable. A few months in I met Andy and practically leapt into her arms when she offered me a job, so there’s a happy ending to that story. But what if I hadn’t met Andy? I was on the cusp of my worst case scenario: giving zero shits about the job, but the perks were too good to leave.

Andy: Let’s be honest — perks have very little to do with motivation. They can entice talent to join an organization. They can make the cage so cushy that talent doesn’t want to fly away. They can help keep employees working longer hours, more intently. I cater lunch and dinner so we can all be fed without leaving the office. We pay for transit so you don’t have to worry about parking; laundry so you don’t have it on your mental to-do list. We’re just clearing space in the brain.

Emma: Last December, Sue Shellenbarger wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “What will distinguish the most profitable companies from the rest in the coming year won’t be whether they offer foosball or free food. It will be whether leaders foster a workplace culture where employees feel a sense of belonging, like their jobs, and trust their managers to help them move on to a better one.” I think anyone who’s ever been unhappy at work and then been handed a Starbucks gift card will hear the crystal ring of truth in that statement.

Andy: So now what? You get to do the hard work of figuring out what’s going on with the people on your team. Which is daunting, especially if you feel like they’re already far gone down the path of unmotivation. The three buckets Sue Shellenbarger mentions are a good place to start.

Emma: And what do you know? We hit on all of those in our Good Boss Scorecard (and have discussed aspects of them in lots of previous issues).

Is Your Team Motivated?

Ask yourself these three questions.

1. How often do you celebrate good work?

It’s easy to think about feedback only as a tool for improvement, but giving your people quality compliments when they’re crushing it helps reinforce a sense of belonging. To make positive feedback specific, personal, and meaningful, pair the person’s or team’s result (an outcome, assessment, or final product) with their contribution (the actions, decisions, behaviors, or skills that produced that result).

At a loss for words? Try filling in these blanks to get your compliment started:

  • This is a great example of _______
  • I hope you feel _______ about _______
  • When I saw you/r_______, I felt _______
  • My favorite part is _______ because _______
  • Wow, you _______. That’s something that _______
  • Because of your _______, the business is _______
  • You have a talent for _______ that I can see in _______
  • I know you’ve been working on _______, and I can see the results in _______

2. What obstacles can you remove?

We’ve talked about it a lot, but making a job easier goes hand-in-hand with making it likable. These five questions will help surface some of your team’s biggest motivation blockers:

  1. When you complain about your job, what do you complain about?
  2. What takes you more time than it seems like it should?
  3. What’s the most frustrating thing about your day-to-day?
  4. If we were redesigning your job, which parts would we create new roles for?
  5. Finish this sentence: It’d be better if we just…

It’s nice to preface these questions with context, particularly if you have malcontents on your team. We usually say something like: “I’m making a list of things that aren’t great that we’d like to change. I won’t be able to genie-lamp all of them. But thinking about these things and writing them down is the first step to figuring out how to solve them together.”

3. How are you helping them get to where they want to go?

Career counseling is one of the most supportive manager moves you have at your disposal. Do you know what kind of work each of your direct reports aspire to? If yes, design opportunities that give them necessary exposure and experience. If no, ask. If you know, but can’t help them get there, you may have just stumbled on the true source of their lack of motivation. You can help them realize it’s time to move on, great perks notwithstanding.

Good Boss Achievement Stickers: Perks Edition

The Bent Good Boss Achievement Stickers Perks Edition