Giving employees an incentive to perform well

One of the hardest things any business owner has to deal with is how to encourage employees to work hard and produce good results. When you own the business, your incentive is preventing the business from failing – your time commitment and financial investment is enough motivation to want to make your business successful. Your employees, however, do not have the same ties to your company, yet their performance is integral to the business’s vitality. So how do you cultivate that willingness to excel?

In owning my business, I have read numerous books on and tried countless methods of inspiring productivity and a positive attitude. Over the years, I have found that the secret is threefold: environment, reward, and empowerment.


When I take a few minutes to daydream about the “perfect” work environment, my thoughts often shift to those paradigms of office glamour, such as Google, with its impressive cafes serving gourmet food, creatively themed and decorated spaces, pure oxygen pumped into each building, commuter shuttles and beer parties on Fridays. While my small office does not have the resources to support that kind of luxury, it does get me thinking about what I can do to make the place where my employees work more enjoyable to be in.

To this end, I have allowed one of my employees to turn an unused room into a small yoga studio. Sometimes she uses the space before work to meditate and prepare for the day; other times it is in the evening to help her unwind. She invites her colleagues to join anytime they are interested. And when my oldest child spends a day at the office, you can bet she arrives dressed for practice with her yoga mat in tow.

Our office has a potluck on the second Thursday of every month. Sometimes we have a theme, and sometimes we just see what happens (like when we all brought in dessert – yum!). We spend an hour eating, talking and laughing. I have found that I learn more about my employees in this one hour than I do in the usual 40+ hours we spend together each week to get our work done.

I also stock the kitchen with “the essentials:” caffeine (coffee and soda) and snacks (chocolate, popcorn, nuts and whatever random edibles piqued my curiosity at the grocery store that week). While it may not do much to curb the stress eating, it does feel good to know that my employees have a pick-me-up readily available while they deal with the everyday stresses and deadlines.

Ask yourself: Is there unused space (or little-used space that could serve multiple functions) in my office that my employees could personalize for their hobbies and interests? What “team-building” activities or functions can I support? Is there room (or can I make it) in my budget to provide some “goodies” to show my employees that I care?


Positive reinforcement goes a long way in encouraging certain behavior. Some rewards are straightforward, such as the classic cash bonus for reaching certain benchmarks.  People go to work to make money, so if you want them to meet or exceed expectations, dangling the proverbial golden carrot may be all the incentive they need. As a small business owner, this may not be the go-to option. In these cases, you must be creative in how you dole out rewards. In the past, I have offered an additional day of PTO or gift certificates for golf time that I had arranged for with a client. It is important to figure out what interests (and therefore motivates) your employees, and then find ways to provide those incentives.

Rewards are not exclusive to work performance. Your employee’s personal achievements are just as important – recognition for what is going on in someone’s life can have a profound impact on how they view the office. Recently, one of my paralegals revealed that her youngest son enlisted in the marines, and the reality of how that would change her life was taking an emotional toll on her. In spite of not wanting her son to leave, she supported a decision that would be best for him and make him happy. Upon hearing the news, I asked my Business Manager to arrange a nice dinner for her family and a gift certificate to a local jeweler to choose a new charm for her bracelet in memory of this important event. Not only am I supporting her in this big moment in her life, but I am rewarding and encouraging this type of attitude in the hopes that it will transfer to the workplace.

Ask yourself: What behavior and/or attitudes do I want to encourage? What interests my employees? What resources do I have to marry these two together for a mutually beneficial solution?


This tool is probably the most subtle form of motivation. Empowering your employees means giving them a voice and a platform to share their criticisms without fear of rebuke. It means listening to their ideas and finding ways to implement them. It also means giving them space to show you what they’re made of and providing challenges that let them shine in ways they never thought possible.

I spend each week in ad hoc or scheduled meetings, individually, as teams or with the entire office, listening to problems and criticisms and brainstorming solutions. This last part is critical. This time is not set aside for whining and complaining. Rather, it is reserved for constructive criticism and problem-solving. Employees are often reminded that they must come to the table having already thought about possible resolutions and to be open to what others may have to offer. This strategy turns negative complaints into positive action. I am often surprised by the creative solutions that my employees propose. Also, when your employees are a part of the solution, they tend to be more invested in making it work. It also requires that I have an open mind. They need the space to show me what suggestions they have to offer. I need to be mentally and emotionally prepared to hear that things aren’t working and what might work out better.

I have two young attorneys in my firm, which requires an enormous amount of mentoring and patience. These women are intelligent and insightful, and I know that the investment is worthwhile. My mentoring strategy is to see what they can do on their own before I propose a course of action. I require that my employees take charge of their roles. I will provide guidance and be there to oversee their work, but I expect them to take responsibility for their assignments. I am challenging them to rise to the occasion. More often than not, they are surprised at how capable they are. As their self-confidence develops, so does their performance.

Ask yourself: How can I encourage my employees to invest emotionally in my business? How can I create space for them to voice their criticisms and participate in problem-solving? Would my employees prefer meetings individually or in groups, or would they feel more comfortable with a “suggestion box?” How can I encourage creativity? How can I challenge my employees to show their strengths and skills?

Recognizing that your employees are not driven by the same goals as you are is the first step in the process. From there, you need to create a customized incentive program. As the business owner, you have to decide what works for you, within the confines of the needs of your employees and the business and the resources available. You may even be so bold as to ask your employees outright what kinds of rewards interest them. At the very least, it will give you a starting point.