What Motivates?

Nov 21, 1994

What’s the best way to motivate staff people? When faced with that question, most firm principals think about what to give them. The experts tell us to pay spot bonuses for an effort that goes above and beyond the call of duty, or promote our committed folks that we can’t yet make principals to “senior associate,” or start a special “employee of the year” award which is announced at the holiday party. While I certainly wouldn’t deny that your employees may expect you to do some of these things, and that sometimes they may be necessary, I don’t think they really address the motivation issue. If you really want to motivate, you may not want to give anything. Offering may get you a lot farther than giving does. What do I mean by that? Offer a challenge. A/E/P and environmental firms are, by and large, run by and staffed with intelligent people who like to test the limits of their capabilities. They want to be stretched by trying new things that they may not necessarily have the qualifications to do. Any firm that wants motivated people has to find a way to address this need, while providing enough supervision and guidance to put out acceptable quality. Offer work that the person can’t get elsewhere. This is one of the keys to growing a professional service business. If you want to attract and motivate the best and brightest people, you have to offer work that they could not get on their own or at another firm. This may mean bigger projects, or projects that require many different professional or technical skills and talents that another firm may not have. Offer the opportunity to get a pay increase or bonus based on job performance. This is in contrast to giving cost-of-living raises, or paying out bonuses based on the employee’s position in the firm’s hierarchy. It also conflicts with having position grades and associated salary brackets for them. Although some employees no doubt want this kind of bureaucracy, it is this kind of nonsense that demoralizes the best staff by effectively capping opportunities. Offer the opportunity to learn this business. A/E/P and environmental firms often forget that they are in the consulting business— not a technical service business. People who work in the firm need to have more than just technical or design skills to succeed. Developing these skills builds confidence and motivation. Not developing these skills hurts confidence and reduces an employee’s willingness to work. Everyone needs to understand the overall business. It affects everything they do in their technical work. And they won’t learn it if you keep them insulated from client contact, proposal writing, project development, and firm financial information. Offer the opportunity to move up by bypassing the established career path. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be an established order of steps to go through to become a project manager or principal. But there also ought to be a way to make exceptions to that order for someone who clearly has the capability to move up faster. Although most would never admit it, too many A/E/P firms operate on a seniority basis. Forcing everyone into the same mold is not the way to motivate your best and brightest— they should be able to move up the ladder faster than someone with less career options. Offer the opportunity for your staff to grow personally. This means you have to give the employee feedback— and it probably won’t always be positive. Most managers don’t like giving bad news, so they avoid it, doing a tremendous disservice to their employees in the process. The highly motivated employee appreciates tactfully delivered feedback that will help his or her career— they find this motivating. Getting no feedback is demotivating to somebody who really wants to be good at what he or she does, and who wants to be rewarded for it. Offer the opportunity to get an entrepreneurial experience. Some— not all— architects, engineers, planners and scientists eventually get bored with technical or design work, or even project management. They may become dissatisfied with the rewards, both psychological and monetary, that they can earn in those roles, and long for a different experience that only ownership can provide. That’s why it’s so critical for privately held firms to allow for stock ownership opportunities for their key people. The ability to motivate people is critical to any high performing A/E/P or environmental firm— or one that aspires to be such a company. Stop giving and start offering, and you may be rewarded with a more motivated staff. Originally published 11/21/1994

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