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Suzanne Bates

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The top five myths about motivating employees


Suzanne Bates investigates five of the most common myths surrounding the motivation of employees, and turns up a few surprises.

In a typical workplace, only 29% of employees are actively motivated and engaged in their jobs, while 71% are unmotivated and disengaged – either not engaged at all (54%) or are actively disengaged (17%), according to the Gallup Management Journal’s Employee Engagement Index.

You may have noticed a slight uptake in employee engagement since the global economic downturn led to layoffs and reorganisation. People are grateful to have a job. However, as a human resources professional, you know that employee engagement will fall back to former levels, or even worsen.  The ‘new normal’ economy is bound to mean workloads remain high, as companies do more with less. The HR team can help leaders recognize the risk to employee motivation, and start thinking about low-cost ways to engage and inspire their teams.      

HR should take an active role by talking with leaders and debunking the top five myths about motivating employees:

Myth #1:  Money is the number one way to motivate employees.

Salaries and bonuses were the staple of motivation in good times. Companies relied primarily, even completely, on monetary rewards – a lazy approach. Money is only one factor in motivation, typically ranking below work environment, flexibility, opportunity, and job satisfaction. Leaders must give employees what they crave- recognition, praise, and the opportunity to learn and grow.

Strategy for HR: Brainstorm with your leaders for new approaches to praise, recognize, and reward. Make it systematic – through weekly, monthly, and annual activities. Sit down with your leaders and help them develop non-monetary reward systems.

Myth #2: If you want to motivate people, don’t let them in on the bad news.

Bad news always gets out to employees. They hate it when you hide bad news; they consider themselves to be partners in the company. They long for a chance to contribute and make a difference in tough times. Empower people by letting them in on the news so they can help.    

Strategy for HR: Encourage leaders to set up lunches, breakfasts, and forums where they can help you brainstorm through tough challenges and contribute to solutions going forward. Encourage leaders to set up a robust feedback loop of communication through electronic and in person meetings.   

Myth #3: Most employees know what motivates them.

People long for a purpose and often find it in their work. However, they need encouragement and guidance from leaders to help them focus on the right things. Leaders must take an active role with each individual to help them develop their interests and talents. Routine conversations about what is important to them will keep the employee engaged and help the manager know how to get the most from the individual. Young talent especially needs to know what leaders see as their future, and are influenced by a leader’s observations and mentoring.

Strategy for HR: Ask leaders to spend time more time during performance reviews asking questions about what aspects of work are important to each employee.  

Myth #4: You simply cannot motivate everyone.

This was true in boom times, when organisations were bloated, and some people you hired were marginal. Those days are over. If you have downsized and are leader, you should have excellent talent on board. Assume that everyone can be engaged.  

Strategy for HR: Create an engagement worksheet where employees can rank what’s important to them, and how satisfied they are in each area on a sliding scale. Help managers and leaders come up with low-cost resources to meet these needs, increase employee satisfaction and engagement.   

Myth #5: People are just grateful to have a job, and this attitude will survive the downturn.

Top talent will always have a place to go, and while they may have had less mobility during the recession, your competitors are already looking around to see who is unhappy and ready to leave. Employers who continue to believe their people are just grateful to have a job will be blindsided when their top talent walks out the door.

Strategy for HR: Even if it appears to be low priority, spend time to identify top talent and put more energy into succession planning. If you cannot offer promotions or additional compensation, give high-potential leaders benefits such as executive coaching and professional development. These perks go a long way when opportunity to move up is limited.

About ‘Motivate Like a CEO’

Suzanne Bates is an executive coach, speaker, and author of "Motivate Like a CEO: Communicate Your Strategic Vision and Inspire People to Act!," published by McGraw-Hill in January 2009, which recently became #1 best-seller in books on communication skills on She is also the author of the business best-seller "Speak Like a CEO, Secrets to Commanding Attention and Getting Results" (McGraw Hill 2005). She is President and CEO of Bates Communications Inc. and blogs at

8 Responses

  1. Enjoyed the article

    I especially agree re Myth #2 – Businesses are extremely reluctant to share bad news and instead like to wait until they think they will have all the answers.  That day never comes, or it brings a new set of unanswered questions, or it’s too late.  I coach managers to be as transparent as possible along the way and engage employees early on to help share ideas and come up with solutions.

  2. Myths? Surprises? More like a lazy reworking of what most peop
    Sadly, I’ve just wasted a few minutes of my life reading this. Are these really myths? What are the surprises this supposedly turns up?

    Had this been called a ‘beginner’s guide’ I’d have understood the level at which it’s written, but if this is aimed at HR professionals then it misses the mark by quite a way.

  3. Money as a Motivator and Other Such Nonsense
    Hi Again, great discussion!

    Very good points you make David.

    and… Actually money is not a motivator however the perception of being inadequately rewarded (money or not) is a ‘demotivator’ if there is such a word. The promise of more money only inspires (motivates if you must) until the payment is received then psychologically the recipient absorbs it as something that was always deserved anyway, so it is no longer a positive. Therefore it is the “promise” that is the inspiration for greater efforts not the money itself.

    and… If HR departments really want to get serious about their role in organizations and motivation perhaps as someone (I can’t remember who) suggested some years ago they should re brand themselves as the HP department, as in the HUMAN POTENTIAL department. Whilst ever humans are seen as resources nothing good will happen!

    Actually in an ideal world “HR” issues need to be the responsibility of line management and HR’s role needs to be downgraded to a technical and legal resource function. HR in my experience often detracts more from human potential than it adds, usually because it overuses its “take away” power base.

  4. The top 5 myths about motivating employees
    My response to Suzanne is ‘quoting McEnroe’ “you can’t be serious !”. A myth is a story which may or may not be true. Research on this has been in perpetual motion by generations of HR people.
    I am not even sure why the questions have to be asked anymore when the same answers emerge from every so-called survey on the topic – you have to ask why someone with the skills to work with CEOs would want to spend time partially confirming what has been known for what seems to me like centuries – I say partially because one might infer from her title that employees can be motivated and it is difficult to know whether this assertion is because of muddled thinking or the consequence of brevity. Why not just summarise the issue and provide the reading list of the original researcher/thinkers like Herzberg – Maslow – Vroom – Rogers – Ackoff – McGregor – and a host of others one can read if really interested in resolving the issue of ‘Motivation’. Why not invite the career people who profess to be interested in people to make a start to put it right and in the process of doing that change the face of HR management from one of ineffectiveness to one of a ‘valued overhead’ in the balance sheet. Surely now it is beyond any doubt that the consistency of the results confirm the arrogant ignorance of managers together with the greed of the most senior has that recently been uncovered to the detriment of everyone in the system.
    David W Smith. [email protected]

  5. Inspiration is the issue…!
    I totally agree with “ctraceyb”. We really need to understand the term motivation. What we are talking about is “inspiring” and as “ctraceyb” says motivation is to do with “internal forces”. To expand a little:

    MOTIVATION DEFINED (From a couple of dictionaries)

    “The emotional forces, wants, needs, urges or drive within us that influence our behaviour” or… ‘a willingness to exert varying levels of effort based on our perception that the level of effort will satisfy some individual craving’.


    Needs, wants, urges (I call them cravings), are feelings that make particular outcomes appear attractive. When a craving is not satisfied tension is created within, which in turn stimulates an urge or drive causing us to seek a solution to satisfy the craving and thus reduce our tension. This is similar to the craving a smoker experiences, particularly when trying to quit. Have you ever been enticed by the aroma of a chicken roasting, or meat sizzling on a BBQ, only to have your spouse say something like, ‘lets eat fish fingers and salad for dinner’? You might yield to the request however your tension level will have increased due to the unsatisfied craving for the chicken or BBQ’d meat. (ref:

    The best way to “inspire” followers/staff is to ensure their and the companies goals are linked/aligned by finding out what THEY want then by proving to them that you and the company are their best chance of getting it.

    Richard Townsend

    ps What motivates them today may be different to what it was yesterday or will be tomorrow.

  6. Communicate and praise to motivate
    Suzanne makes several excellent points in her book, one of which I highlighted in my blog on HRZone here: Specifically:

    Her suggestions to praise and recognize your people while communicating constantly and consistently are central to motivation in this economy. As she has said:

    “Managers and executives must find non-monetary ways to keep their teams motivated, and to inspire them to achieve goals and objectives with fewer people and less funding. This makes it even more important for leaders to be out in front of employees as much as possible, continually communicating and making personal connections with them.”

  7. 5 myths about motivation
    Sorry, guys! but Suzanne Bates has just reiterated the obvious (or am I a genius? I think not!)
    Engagement= motivation. or rather disengagement results in the obverse reaction. Most HR professionals know that “the people aren’t stupid” and know quicker than most what is going wrong, or right. If you want to retain respect (or motivation) keep them informed of what the Company knows, or intends.

  8. The 6th Myth
    Managers cannot motivate people as it is an internal state that drives people towards or away from something. A manager can demotivate – not recognising good work, not being clear about what is to be done, not providing training or development etc – but they cannot motivate. They can create a potentially motivating environment but if someone doesn’t want to be there then no matter what you do it won’t change them – only they can do that. We have to be realistic with managers and encourage them to create the best possible workplace and alos accept that for some people it just won’t do it for them and that is where they should concentrate their efforts.


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