Motivating Employees: Saying the Right Thing at the Right Time

motivating staff in performance review

5 Free Ways to Motivate Your Staff in Challenging Times

Motivating employees is not easy. When times are tough, motivating your staff becomes even harder. For the past two years, our business has been undergoing a significant amount of corporate restructuring, downsizing, and changes in management, all of which have understandably left my employees concerned about the future.  And because of the business changes affecting my department, I have not had as much time to spend with my employees as I normally would want. As a result, when meeting with them to conduct my annual performance reviews recently, I also needed to figure out how to motivate each employee and connect with them on an individual level.  So, in order to reinvigorate my team during these challenging times, I used the 5 secret weapons that every manager has in their arsenal. (And note: all of them are free!)

5 Ways to Motivate Employees

1. Motivate Employees with Purpose

How: When good employees are stuck doing the mundane, take time to explain how their effort supports the organization.

A Real Example:

Because our business has been undergoing some significant production challenges this past year, I assigned one of my best employees, Paulo, to work on the team responsible for getting us back up and running.  Although the specific work he was doing was monotonous and not necessarily interesting or challenging for him, I deliberately selected Paulo for this assignment because he is known for producing high quality output and seeing things through to completion.  Given the high-stakes situation, I needed an individual of his talents to help pull us through.

RELATED: How to Write an Employee Performance Review

When it came to talking with Paolo, I already knew he was frustrated and tired of the situation, almost feeling punished because of his high stress assignment.  Talking with Paulo, though, I explained the reason I had selected him for the work.  “As you know, the company is losing a tremendous amount of money as a result of our production problems, and I needed to get someone involved that I could trust could get us out of it.”  Further, I explained to him that I knew he could handle the pressure and still put forth a quality output, where others could not.  “More than anyone else on this team, Paulo, that is you” I told him.  By the time the conversation ended, he was reminded of the purpose.  He understood the reason he was assigned to such an unenjoyable task, and committed himself to seeing it through the last couple of months.


2. Motivate Employees with Belief

How: When you have an employee who is unsure of him or herself, let them hear you say that you have confidence in their abilities.

A Real Example:

Another employee of mine, Jason, was hired about a year ago.  Jason is extremely organized and while he only has about 4 years of professional experience, he has begun to show tremendous leadership skills and the make-up of an effective manager down the line.  He is open, honest and quick on his feet.  In terms of his performance last year, he did was what asked of him, but had a tendency to hold back rather than take things to the next level.  The reason for this was rooted in his own uncertainty.  “I’m comfortable with what I’m doing, but I’m just concerned that I am still new and might miss something” he said.  Consequently, he rarely worked extra hours, managing to complete only his immediate  assignments.

RELATED: Giving Feedback to an Employee

When it came to talking with Jason, it was the first real conversation he and I had about his performance since he was hired. I wanted to push him, because he did have a great deal of talent.  I initially offered him both positive and constructive comments on his year of service to the company, and talked about the challenges he was facing. However, what Jason really needed to kickstart his growth and to get him to take it to the next level, was confidence in himself.  Although he felt he didn’t have enough experience or knowledge to take on bigger challenges, it was clear to me after just a year, that he just needed to keep going down the path he was on.  So, I made sure to let him know that, as his manager, I believed he was far more capable than he was giving himself credit for and that he was doing all the right things.


3. Motivate Employees with Acknowledgement

How:  When an employee is dealing with a difficult situation, take a moment to reassure them that what they’re doing is the right thing.

A Real Example:

Todd was a very experienced employee of mine.  Because of his experience, Todd was responsible for leading a complex project and dealing with a very challenging and demanding customer.  Despite our best efforts, the complicated relationship we had with this customer continuously put Todd in a situation where all eyes were on him.  Every decision he made, every change in direction he took, every day he asked for more time to work through the challenges was met with concern and scrutiny from others, including the project manager.

When I met with Todd for his performance review, much of the conversation surrounded the project.  Because of the amount of pressure he was getting from project manager, he was unsure if the way he was going about his actions was appropriate.  “Am I meeting your expectations?” he asked.  His question made me realize that Todd needed more support from me and my acknowledgement that I was not concerned about his performance.  I explained to him that he was selected for project because of his experience and ability to work through complex challenges. He needed to know that I supported him and that he was still doing his job well, despite the constant microscope he found himself under.


4. Motivate Employees with Reward

How: Motivate an employee by rewarding him or her for past performance and success.

A Real Example:

Kylie was a solid employee of mine.  In the 4 years she worked in my team, I had watched her grow from a recent college graduate, who was learning and never quite sure of herself, to a talented employee with tremendous promise.

When I met with Kylie, she was nearing the end of a challenging project that had taken about 3 years to complete.  I knew she was tired of it and ready for something new.  In Kylie’s case, she needed a new project to come her way.  When I asked her how she felt she was doing, she replied by saying she had grown a great deal and felt more comfortable making decisions. I fully agreed. We had recently signed a new contract, and after a lengthy conversation about her growth and learning over the past year I told Kylie that this new project would be hers, waiting for her to finish up the last couple months of the project she had been working on for the past 3 years. It was a reward – her hard work and dedication was very noticeable and she was deserving of a new project.


5. Motivate Employees with Opportunity

How: When you have an up-and-coming employee who needs to gain more experience, give him or her an opportunity to demonstrate new skills.

A Real Example:

One of my youngest employees had been working in a supporting role on a large project.  Over the course of a few years since graduating college, he had learned a lot, and was ready to take on something a bit bigger that would give him exposure to the broader business.

When I met with this employee for his performance evaluation and talked about his past year, I shifted the conversation towards what was next for him.  “What is the next step in your development and growth?” I asked. We talked about a few opportunities and how each could benefit him personally and professionally. The focus was less about assignments that would give him more technical skills, which had been the reason for his current assignment, and more about soft skills – dealing with people, handling the spotlight and communication.  A highly motivated and energetic employee, after thinking about it he selected one of the opportunities I offered and was more than happy to be given a chance to take on a new challenge.


In today’s work environment, employees place a great deal of importance on things like career growth and opportunity. We as managers need to ensure we interact and communicate with our employees enough to know which buttons to press in order to keep them engaged and motivated to doing the job at hand. Effectively motivating employees can often come down to giving them the right input at the right time.


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