How to motivate your team

It’s never been more important to run a small business that cares about its employees – that’s always been the right thing to do. But these useful pointers on motivating your team, effectively, can help to keep productivity up, too.

There are lots of reasons why productivity can falter. Outside influences play their part. But your business’s productivity can also be affected by your team’s motivation and ability to share good ideas. Do your employees have a natural enthusiasm for their work? Do they come in every day, full of ideas and ready to reach their targets? Motivating your team effectively and getting them connected to a sense of achievement can see a rise in productivity, customer service and sales.

There are many ways to make a team feel more inspired by their work. Most of the tips and tools that small businesses use to motivate their staff can be easily introduced as part of your everyday operations.

What is motivation, exactly?

Real motivation may be a combination of internal and external factors that make someone act in a certain way, to achieve a specific aim and be enthusiastic about demonstrating a certain behaviour. The key to motivating a team effectively is to find out what they want most, and then provide the means to achieve that goal. In short, you need to find out what makes people tick. As a small business owner, there’s a lot you can do to influence what does or doesn’t motivate your team. But the final choice is theirs.

Let your own motivation shine through

If you’re not obviously – clearly – motivated, then your team won’t be either. Share the highs (and lows) about your company, give updates on where you’re going, and share your long- and short-term goals. This is not the same thing as showing off a recent purchase because you’ve received a large dividend, or presenting a complex strategy document to your employees. Rather, it’s about finding ways to show what success means to you as a person and doing so in a way that makes sense to your employees. The phrase ‘keep it real’ says it best.

Treat your employees like people

It sounds obvious, but find out what makes your people tick. Make a point of finding out about their interests and what motivates them in their lives at home. Don’t be superficial: engaging with a small number of employees really well can have far more impact than having many interactions with hundreds of team members every day. Offer direct, sincere praise when someone exceeds your expectations; welcome people’s personal opinions – encourage people to get to know you as a person, too.

Be upfront about less exciting projects

Some people get motivated simply by having an opportunity to show they’re part of a team, willing to turn up and get on with what’s necessary – no matter how unglamorous it is. Sometimes employees can be required to take on projects that aren’t exciting or glamorous. When handing out these assignments, be upfront about the scope of the task. The last thing you want to do is throw an employee a curveball or appear untruthful.

Be consistent

When you’re trying to demonstrate that ‘we’re all in it together’, and ‘we’re working for a common goal’, it’s vital to be consistent. Provide direction and give praise on an equal footing. If, for example, a team deserves a reward for achieving its sales targets this month, make sure that next month’s reward is comparable. If you feel you can’t work this way, then address the reasons why, rather than overlook them.

Encourage people to have a voice

Encourage your team to speak up and offer new ideas on any and all aspects of your business. Have an open-door policy and encourage it among others in senior management. Good ideas come from anywhere, great ideas might come from anyone.

Recognition is important, but it’s also important to recognise what you learn when new ideas don’t work as expected. Ask your teams for feedback, welcome their input openly and remember that not everyone likes speaking up: you may need to talk to people individually to get the best from them.

Reward lateral thinking

When your teams know you value their opinions, they’ll be encouraged to speak up and make suggestions that might not have surfaced otherwise. Encourage new ideas and make it easy to offer them – discreetly if necessary. A ‘good ideas’ box is the simplest, and sometimes most effective, way of prompting opinions. (If you find negative feedback coming in, treat it confidentially and with the same levels of attention. It’s an indication there are underlying reasons for lack of motivation.)

Provide real opportunities

On-track training is one way to motivate people as individuals: giving them the chance to progress in their careers. But it can be just as productive to offer training or opportunities that are outside a usual comfort zone or skillset. Cross-training, in particular, may unearth hidden talent. Create challenges that can be enjoyable, projects that might benefit from a new pair of eyes, and ways to demonstrate your personal levels of confidence in your employees as individuals.

Talk about careers – inside and outside your own business

Not everyone may want to work with you throughout their working lives. The motivation to make progress on a career ladder that takes an employee elsewhere is just as powerful as the motivation to succeed inside the company. Let your employees have career goals that feel tangible; encourage them to share their personal and career ambitions for the future – it could help you to make plans that help them, and help your business at the same time.

And, if you’re able to, create a structure that offers internal progression on a regular basis – even if it’s sideways in a department, or a working sabbatical of only a few days. Employees who think they’re stuck in a rut tend to lose motivation, quickly. If you can show that you’re committed to helping people climb the corporate ladder, they’ll work harder to reach the next step.

Give praise where praise is due

If your team is doing a great job, tell them. Personally and sincerely. If they’re not doing a great job, find out why, and then see how you can help the situation, first. It is every easy to demotivate a disconnected employee even further, faster, by blaming them for a bad job without knowing the reasons why a target has been missed. Be tactful in how you offer praise in public. One person’s visible reward may be another person’s reason to give up trying. Focus your praise on the performance, not the person.

Be clear about your plans

If your team can’t understand what they’re working for, then they’ll struggle to find anything that motivates them in the workplace. Whenever you change direction, or reach a milestone, explain what’s happening in as much detail as you can. Talk about the company’s ‘bigger picture’ on a regular basis, and make it clear how the everyday duties fit into that plan.

Lead by example at every level

However large or small your business is, roll your sleeves up occasionally and check in with your core employees. It’s an excellent way to discover small changes to your operation or service that might make a big difference if they’re rolled out across your business. But be sincere about your involvement on a shop floor or production line. If you don’t have the practical skill-set, ask one of the employees to show you what they’re doing. Use it as an opportunity to explain how important their role is in your business.

Give everyone a break, sometimes

There’s more to life than work. Set an example that reminds employees they’ll benefit from having regular breaks - fresh air, good food, and time away from their desks or workstations. If a team seems particularly demotivated for any reason, spring for cakes or a catered lunch and get them to vent their frustrations. You may discover the solution to a problem and you’ll certainly refocus their attention if they realise you genuinely care about them.

Talk about money, regularly

This isn’t the same as offering pay rises. Find opportunities to talk about the way the business’s finances are run. Explain some of your overheads, costs, resources, and supply chain logistics. By doing this, you’ll have an opportunity to demonstrate that people are a resource too – and one that is valued more highly than anything else in the business. Ask for people’s opinions on salaries, and encourage people to offer ideas on salary alternatives. Would your teams be motivated by shares in the business? Vouchers, alongside a salary? Nursery fee contributions or gym memberships?

Make sure your workplace is a nice place to work

Nobody likes working in an unpleasant environment. Find a balance for your company that fits your brand identity (and takes your employees’ personalities into consideration, too). You may not want to put soft beanbags out for meetings in corridors, but your teams may feel more motivated to take an active part in a meeting if there’s a room that has comfortable chairs and soft drinks in it. You might not like the idea of garish décor in an open-plan office area, but you might find productivity goes up if you offer standing workstations.

  • Appreciation can be the biggest motivator. Sometimes, it’s not about the money. 
  • Consider offering an extra day off, or a privileged parking position.
  • Find ways for your human resources team to engage with individuals, discretely.

Seven ways to demotivate your team without realising it

  • Micromanaging talented people
  • Keeping people in the dark about important things
  • Playing people off against one another
  • Resenting success and rewarding ‘yes-people’
  • Not sharing the credit for your business’s success
  • Giving insincere praise (you’ll always be found out)

Top takeaways

  • Motivation is not something you do, it’s something that people choose for themselves

  • Think about your business as a team of people first – find out what makes them tick

  • Canvas opinions – it’s the best way to find out what motivates individuals on a personal level

  • Leading by example is infectious – people love genuine enthusiasm

  • Explain your ambitions for the business, show people how their role is vital and appreciated

  • Encourage everyone to have a voice, whether it’s with good or bad news


Please note that these guides are provided for information purposes only and not as advice or recommendations. Before deciding to undertake any course of action you may wish to seek independent professional advice.