In 37 years in the work force, some as an employee, most in management, there's only one motivator I've personally come across that caused large numbers of individuals to immediately improve their job performance.
At the time I was a young man loading trucks for a large national trucking company. Management's problem was "miss-sorts," too many packages loaded onto the wrong trucks, resulting in costly delivery delays.
The section of the plant I worked in had six trucks, all bound for different parts of the U.S., backed up to bays in front of which boxes flowed by on a conveyor belt. Two people worked each truck: a "pickoff man" (or woman, we had one in the job in the two years I worked there) who picked the boxes off the conveyor belt, and a loader who stacked the boxes inside the truck. It was a fast operation and boxes moved quickly. Try as one might to read all labels carefully, in the sea of boxes flowing down the belt, a pickoff man generally misread a few labels during each shift.
This problem could be virtually eliminated if the loader also read the labels inside the truck, providing a double check. This was a union shop, however, so management authority was a somewhat constrained, but the more pressing issue was that loaders strongly disliked double-checking the labels. In fact (as I well remember), it was a challenging job: The trucks had little light in them, so it was difficult to see, and it was bitter cold in winter and sweltering in summer. Loading was okay when one was left alone to a continuous rhythm of mindless labour, but straining to read each label in dim light added a markedly stressful element. For the most part management accepted the situation, occasionally pushing for more diligent inside-the-truck double-checking, but generally acknowledging the task's inherent difficulty.
The creative solution
At one point, however, when miss-sorts became too costly an issue, management devised a new incentive program. Overnight it changed all of the loaders' collective behaviour and resolved the problem.
What was the motivator? It was unexpectedly simple: Molson beer.
If a two-person loading team achieved no miss-sorts for an entire week, we each received a case of Molson's. Suddenly loaders worked with new diligence and fervour. I remember those days fondly. Life was good. I was 23 and had cases of beer stacked high all over my apartment.
The point of course is not that beer is a motivational panacea (though some might argue otherwise!), but that the right creative incentives can have a surprisingly positive effect. In this instance, the incentive was perfect for its target, male truck loaders in their 20s. I never forgot the example, and years later as a corporate manager tried to be mindful of it.
Such creativity can be challenging in a corporate environment, and the traditional motivators – salary increases, bonuses, promotions, etc. – are both expected and can be in short supply, depending on company and individual performance. So here are a few out-of-the box motivators that I, and other colleagues, used with positive effect.
▪ An office with a door (this had great appeal to an individual who longed for a quiet workspace)
▪ A split schedule allowing a person to leave in mid-afternoon (to care for family) and be back online at 10 p.m.
▪ A free day off (no vacation time counted) after a gruelling project
▪ Dinner for two at a fine restaurant (especially appreciated when young children are in the family)
▪ A weekend at a spa
▪ Sports event tickets and concert tickets
▪ A free parking space
Often, of course, it's just the gesture of recognition, showing that hard work is appreciated, that makes the biggest difference. Truth be told, I never found anything as effective as that golden beverage from my truck loading days, but I guess that was just the right drink at the right place at the right time.