Helen Giles: Motivating employees is about more than money

The key to true motivation is not financial, but it can be much harder to achieve

I very much enjoyed the recent piece in HR magazine by Lynda Gratton on the way money has always dominated the negotiated relationship between employees and their employers. I couldn’t agree more that focusing on financial rewards as a means of attracting and retaining staff misses by a mile what the primary motivators are for the majority of employees.

At the core induction sessions we run for new staff, I regularly run an exercise where participants are asked to identify what motivates and demotivates them in their working life. Other than saying that pay should be fair, money is virtually never mentioned. Time and time again the front runners are the results they get in working with homeless people to rebuild their lives, and simple thanks for a job well done.

Beyond this, with group after group, the same set of themes emerge: interesting work and being able to use their judgement and creativity; a line manager who supports and coaches; opportunities to develop their skills and careers; team members they can rely on; being consulted on changes affecting their work and the organisation; fairness and a consistency of the behaviours of managers and other colleagues with organisational values; flexibility of working and support to achieve a good work-life balance.

It is not more expensive for an organisation to deliver on all the above than it is to throw money at financial solutions to recruitment, engagement and retention challenges. It is just harder, because it involves aligning all the leaders and managers in an organisation to operate in an empowering way. This means managers having to put the work involved in coaching, developing and motivating staff above their love of carrying out the technical bits of their roles. This can sometimes be a big ask where a manager has been promoted to their role with no expectation that this will be the case, or had no training to do it well.

However hard it is perceived to be, if HR professionals and their organisations want to drive up engagement, their people strategies should be focused more on ways to ensure that employees experience the above ‘intangible assets’ and less on traditional ‘reward’. No amount of tinkering with pay structures and benefits packages will deliver anything like the same results.

Helen Giles in executive director of HR at homelessness charity St Mungo’s Broadway and Managing Director at the social enterprise HR consultancy Real People. She was recently named one of the most influential HR practitioners of the decade in the HR Most Influential rankings. Follow her on Twitter: @HelenMJGiles