Q: From your research, what have you learned about how to effectively motivate employees?
A: I looked at about 50 years of work by sociologists and economists who studied motivation in the workplace. They found that classic motivation techniques—carrot/stick incentives, if/then rewards—work well for simple, routine, rule-based tasks, such as turning screws on assembly lines or stuffing envelopes. But when you ask people to think creatively and complete tasks that are more complex and require conceptual reasoning, these techniques just aren’t effective.
Q: What does motivate employees to perform these types of tasks?
A: First, whenever possible, you need to pay employees enough—you want them thinking about work, not income. Next, give them a sense of autonomy—control over what they do, when they do it, who they do it with. Promote a sense of mastery—a desire to improve and progress, and give them a sense of purpose—a desire to serve beyond themselves and impact the world.
Q: But how can small, independent retailers hit hard by the recession offer adequate income?
A: It can be very difficult. Ideally, pay more than the market, but if you can’t afford to, be as transparent as possible. When people don’t know what’s going on, they start talking and manufacturing stories that are more nefarious than what’s really happening. Treat all employees fairly. If you tell them you don’t have enough money to give raises, and then someone finds out Fred got a raise, you’ve violated fairness and demotivated the staff.
Q: How can natural products retailers employ the motivation techniques you mention?
A: A natural products store is different from an enterprise that sells ball bearings, in that there’s a sense of purpose that motivates: You’re giving people products that enhance their well-being. But beyond that, there’s huge opportunity to apply autonomy, mastery and purpose. Take autonomy: Hire great people and grant them some control. For instance, don’t create a script for employees to recite every time a customer asks them a question. Encourage your staff to talk about products in the way they’d like to [within the scope of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act].
Here’s another great example of autonomy: There’s a software company in Australia that, for one afternoon once a quarter, tells its developers to work on anything they want, so long as it’s not part of their regular job. These single days of autonomy have led to ideas for new products, fixes for existing products and improvements on procedures within the firm. This is certainly something natural products retailers could do. Ask employees to present ideas of how to improve some aspect of the business. What’s a new way to engage customers? How can we run our store more efficiently?
As for mastery, that can mean ditching formal performance reviews and coming up with ways to give employees richer, more rapid feedback. Once a week you could read them letters from customers who say, “On your advice, I changed my diet. Now I’ve lost 10 pounds and feel more vital.”