by Gary Johnson

Did you know that almost every study on motivation conducted in the last 30 years shows that money is not the top motivator? Please don’t misunderstand me: Money absolutely has the ability to motivate, and it usually makes the top 10, but never is it number one. In fact, money is much easier to understand in this context: If employees receive a pay increase, they are excited, but they also feel they’ve earned it. The truth is that money becomes more powerful as a demotivator than a motivator from the perspective of fairness. If employees are making what they feel is less than the prevailing wage, then they become demotivated.

So if money is not the most powerful motivator, what is? According to many experts in the field of industrial psychology, recognition is one of the most powerful ways to motivate your employees. The great thing about recognition is that in reality, it actually costs the organization very little in terms of dollars and cents. Instead of citing study after study to support that recognition is a very powerful motivator, I would rather discuss practical ways to provide recognition to employees that your leadership team can implement right away.

Gary Johnson

One idea is for the “boss” to write a personal, hand-written thank-you note to his or her direct report who does something exceptional or goes above and beyond the call of duty. Now, before you dismiss this as trivial, let me share a story with you from The New York Times best-selling book It’s Your Ship, written by Captain Michael Abrashoff.

Captain Abrashoff said, “I began writing letters to the parents, especially when their sons or daughters did something I could honestly praise. When the letters arrived, the parents inevitably called their children to say how proud they were of them. To this day, I get Christmas cards from grateful parents. One young man who wasn’t star material was working on a project with four outstanding sailors. I debated whether he deserved one of my letters; because he was part of a stellar group, I went ahead. His parents were divorced, so I sent a letter to each parent. About two weeks later, the sailor knocked on my door with tears streaming down his face.

” ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.

” ‘I just got a call from my father, who all my life told me I’m a failure. This time, he said he’d just read your letter, and he wanted to congratulate me and say how proud he was of me. It’s the first time in my entire life he’s actually encouraged me. Captain, I can’t thank you enough.’ “

Question: do you think the captain has the loyalty of this sailor? Personal notes are one of the most powerful ways we can recognize employees.

To read more articles about how to build a strong team, click on the “Practice Management” tab.

Another idea is to send a personal note to the children of one of your star employees. In the note, tell the children how proud you are of the mother or father and what that person did specifically to earn your praise. Inside the card, put a $10 gift card to Blockbuster and tell the kids that the next movie or game rental is on you. Be sure to send the card to the employee’s home address and make it out to the children of the employee.

While there are many ways to motivate employees, few ideas can provide the impact of sincere appreciation from one’s boss. Keep this in mind the next time someone on your team does something great. They will love you for it!

Gary Johnson is vice president of sales and marketing at DynaFlex. He can be reached at