Beyond Cash: How to Motivate Creative, Entrepreneurial Employees

Studies have shown personalized prizes win out over cash when it comes to employee motivation.
Studies have shown personalized prizes win out over cash when it comes to employee motivation.

Most companies try to drive quality results by motivating their teams with financial rewards. While most employees will gladly accept a bonus of a few hundred dollars, money is an unoriginal reward that can eventually lose its luster. In fact, a recent study found a water bottle incited more productivity than a cash bonus. In a startup environment where fluctuations in team morale can spell either success or failure for the entire venture, it is important for team leaders to personalize rewards based on employees’ personalities, hobbies and passions.

The only way to offer team members incentives they want and will put forth effort to obtain is to get to know your employees and discover their preferences. For example, many engineers at my company are foodies—and I don’t just mean people who enjoy a nice meal. I mean these developers are extreme foodies who, thanks to their predilection toward science and engineering, want to know the latest trends in modernist cooking technology, specifically the sous-vide method of immersing vacuum-sealed food in warm water baths to cook. Upon the completion of a particularly intensive and critical project, we provided the Cadillac of all cookbooks: the $625 molecular gastronomy guide, “Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking,” by Nathan Myhrvold, who for many years was the chief technology officer and chief strategist of Microsoft. Since our engineers love food and science, this was the perfect incentive. As a reward for the team’s hard work, we purchased this extreme cookbook for the company library.

In order to foster inter-departmental communication and competition, we host companywide cook-off competitions to see who can come up with the most creative and successful tech-inspired entrees. One of the most popular is the chili cook-off. If you have never had bison chili, it is a treat. Each department is also given a stipend for hosting monthly food, wine and artisanal beer parties for the entire company. A lot of effort goes into the theme, ambiance and, of course, food. Another personalized and motivational activity is the recognition for the sales team. In addition to personalized incentives, we also make sure to recognize every customer win so that each sales person or team has the chance to be spotlighted in front of the rest of the company. There is a bell from a sailboat outside the executive area, and whenever we win a new customer, the entire team gathers, including overseas members via conference call lines, and we have a bell-ringing ceremony in which we celebrate and cheer on the responsible party. He or she then tells the story of how the customer acquisition came about, why we won, and what steps we took to close the deal. Not only is this a moment of celebration and recognition, but it’s also a teaching moment for the rest of the company to take a lesson from the win and apply pertinent techniques to future sales efforts.

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The benefits of learning what your employees want extend beyond productivity. In addition to stoking energy among your team, it will also bolster company morale and create a better working environment. Your employees will see that management cares about them personally, which fosters goodwill and loyalty, all while reducing employee churn.

Esmeralda Swartz is the chief marketing officer for MetraTech Corp.