Established business owners and novice entrepreneurs alike struggle with the same vexing question: How do I motivate my employees to perform at the highest possible level without burning them out or creating perverse incentives?

Volumes of real and digital ink have been spilled on this topic, but it sometimes seems like we’re no closer to a definitive answer. That’s partly because there’s no single answer to the question of employee motivation — you can’t apply a one-size-fits-all solution to a diverse, millions-strong workforce, or even a single small business’s workforce.

But it’s also because many business owners approach the question from the wrong angle. These well-meaning decision-makers assume that employees need to be externally motivated to do their jobs well, and that they won’t live up to their potential without someone standing behind them to crack the whip at the first sign of fatigue. In reality, most workers want to perform to their full potential. They’re more than capable of internal motivation, provided they’ve got a supportive cast of superiors to nudge them in the right direction.

What do those nudges look like? Here’s a look at some best practices for helping your employees reach their full potential without burning them out along the way.

Give Your Employees Skin in the Game

Employees are more mobile than ever. What better way to keep them in house — and motivate them to use their talents to build your business — than to give them a stake in your company’s future? Judiciously awarded equity can dramatically boost employee buy-in and improve retention rates. Pro tip: tie part of your employees’ equity packages to personal goals or performance metrics, but make sure they get some shares regardless of quarter-to-quarter performance.

Change Up the Pace

It’s easy for startups to fall into an always-on-all-the-time mentality. That might be great for sales (and possibly the bottom line), but it’s terrible for employee morale. Once you score a big win, dial things back for a bit, schedule a team-building retreat or flex time, and let your employees take a breather. When the next crunch comes, they’ll be ready.

Teach Employees the Value of Their Work (and Their Tools)

To teach a particular employee what his skills meant to his business, “[o]ne of the things I did was to put the price tag on some of our more expensive equipment,” says Scott Vollero, an international entrepreneur who turned a small scrap metal recycling startup into a multimillion dollar business with operations in several emerging economies. “When one of our guys got trained to operate a $250,000 piece of equipment, I wanted him to know that I had faith in him and trusted him to work with a very expensive piece of equipment. It soon became a 'badge of honor' to be able to work with the most expensive equipment we had.”

Note that Vollero didn’t tell his guy, “Hey, that machine is worth a lot of money, and if you break it, you’re fired.” By putting a price tag on the machine, he actually communicated implicit trust: If he was so worried the worker would break the thing, why would he let him use it in the first place?  

Whatever Works?

No two companies are alike. Even competing businesses take divergent approaches to internal governance, quality control, accounting, marketing and other basic corporate functions. When it comes to motivating potentially very different sets of employees, why should companies insist on hewing to the exact same best practices?

If the ideas outlined here strike you as off the mark or beside the point, that’s fine. You don’t have to follow them. They might not be right for your business, anyway. And you certainly shouldn’t be shy about talking to, and learning from, other entrepreneurs who’ve treaded a similar path. As long as you remember that your employees largely want to do right by your company, and thus aren’t afraid to do right by them, you’ll find there’s little you can’t push them to achieve.

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