5 ways to increase workplace motivation at a startup

Long Story Short:

  • It can be very difficult to keep employees motivated, engaged, and inspired, especially in a startup environment, where traditional solutions aren’t always realistic. 
  • Acknowledging and identifying motivation problems in your team will help you find better and faster solutions. 
  • Giving and taking constructive feedback will increase confidence, trust, and team communication.
  • Well-deserved recognition will increase self-esteem, enthusiasm, and team morale.
  • Showing workers the “big-picture” will increase ownership, motivation, and teamwork.
  • Providing chances for team bonding outside work will increase engagement, commitment, and a sense of belonging.

“Rewarding and recognizing employees doesn’t always have to be monetary. Knowing how each individual likes to be recognized is the key.  

Carly Ortiz, Senior Talent Manager at 43North. 

Employee motivation can be a daunting problem for managers, leaders, and human resources professionals. Motivated employees are assets to an organization and often are directly proportional to an organization’s success. They tend to be both more efficient and productive while producing a higher quality of work. Nowhere is that more apparent than in a startup. Startups need employees that are invested and interested in the company, who can wear multiple hats at any given time, and who are willing to put in those extra hours needed to get things off the ground. Traditional methods of motivation don’t always work in those environments. Luckily, most startups aren’t bound by tradition, and they often find ways to get creative with their solutions.

Admit You Have a Problem

The first step to problem-solving is defining the problem. If you’re reading this, then you’re already on your way there! As Forbes puts it, “the workplace is evolving and shifting. As leaders, we need to realize that the wants and needs of our employees are changing.” The reason many leaders have a hard time with this is because motivation is intangible. It is difficult to measure and control, but we can facilitate it. It’s all about intention, intensity, and perseverance. Having a manager that is trying to better themselves is huge because, without a motivated leader, your team will find it hard to motivate themselves. This is especially true in startups, where the team is often small and interacts with leadership daily. 

Set reasonable goals for the team, and evaluate yourself as well as your employees in a constructive way. Identify the things you are doing well and the things that aren’t working. If you’re in a startup, you have the advantage of being flexible, so don’t be afraid to try things out!  If you’re new to a leadership role and don’t quite know what the warning signs are, keep a lookout for these:

  • Growing absences, tardiness, or turnovers
  • Doing the bare minimum required for the job
  • No contributions or innovation
  • Withdrawing from coworkers
  • Mood or attitude changes
  • Decreased efficiency, productivity, and self-sufficiency
  • Showing boredom and disinterest
  • Shrinking of responsibilities 

Feedback is a Game of Ping-Pong

The best way to get employees involved is to create a comfortable environment for communication. Managers are not just bosses, they should also be mentors. Ask employees what motivates them and how they want to be recognized, but also let them come to you with their questions and concerns. Show them that you trust and value their opinions! This way, both parties will always be striving to be better.

“Feedback is important to me because I want to grow, no matter what position I’m in within the team. I want to know that I am contributing to the bigger picture, and I want to know what I can do better, I’d also want to work for someone who has a similar mindset; someone who values my opinion and those of my colleagues. A manager should be open to asking for feedback, and actually implementing those ideas in the workplace.”

Thomas Dunia, intern at 43North,

An Attitude of Gratitude

Another important thing to keep in mind is that feedback shouldn’t only be negative. Correcting mistakes is important, but recognizing achievement will get you much farther. Employees need to know that their leaders appreciate their hard work. “Rewarding and recognizing employees doesn’t always have to be monetary. Knowing how each individual likes to be recognized is the key. A handwritten note, praising an employee’s efforts at a team meeting or providing positive feedback in a one-on-one setting are all great gestures.”  says Carly Ortiz, Senior Talent Manager at 43North. 

Remember that  employees are people, and that makes them all different.Consider the individual when deciding how to show gratitude. This is usually easier to do at a start-up, where smaller teams allow you to create personalized experiences with team members. Some employees are motivated by the opportunity to take on new, challenging work, as a sign that their manager trusts and relies on them. Others might be more social and appreciate a lunch outing with their co-workers to celebrate a big achievement. If you are giving verbal praise (which you should do often with everyone, from partners to interns to janitors), remember that it doesn’t have to be elaborate; it just needs to be specific:

  • Always use the person’s name. 
  • Include details about the notable behavior or action. 
  • Explain to them WHY this behavior or action is important
  • Deliver the praise in a timely fashion  (I’d recommend no later than the next day)

The Big Picture 

A leader’s main responsibility is to bring the team together and create a company’s “bigger picture”. The mistake many managers make here is assuming that each individual will get to that larger-than-them purpose on their own. A good leader will show each member of the team how they fit in that frame. The larger the company is, the harder this is to do, so keep this in mind when bringing new people onto the team.

How exactly do we go about it, though?  Start by sharing a vision, your goals, and explain how you define “value” in your company. Learn about the issues that are important to your workers, whether it is current events, social justice, or volunteer work. Create comprehensive and reasonable metrics that the team can measure, encourage ownership of projects by delegating and trust your teammates. Micromanaging is one of the quickest ways to kill motivation, and when it’s gone, it’s hard to build back up.

Once you get a hang of it, you will realize how motivating it is for employees to feel like they are trusted and doing something meaningful. Startups give individuals a chance to stand out and see for themselves the impact of their hard work. This is the huge appeal of working at a smaller company, so use it to your advantage when trying to get people engaged! 

The Way to the Heart is Through the Stomach

If all else fails, food will get you there. But in all seriousness, free food is a great example of what type of environment people want to be in a flexible, fun, and inclusive place. Occasional food and events instantly uplifts people while serving as an opportunity for employees to bond with each other. For example, at 43North, we host Bagel Tuesday every week. People from all departments come together to mingle over breakfast. It also gives them a chance to network and brainstorm while having fun.

You can also try other things. See what clicks best with the team! Take a half-day Friday to do something fun together: Go on a scavenger hunt, host book clubs, or video game tournaments. Celebrate people’s birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, or any other personal milestones. Outdoor events and employee mixers can help your employees become friends as well as coworkers. As cliche as it sounds, we employees really look forward to such occasions. The bottom line is that people like to spend time with each other in a non-professional setting. It’s also important that you like your coworkers because it can make or break your experience at work. This is why startups are appealing; they break the mold of corporate culture and offer a more casual and interesting environment for growth.

In Conclusion…

One of the most important aspects of running a successful organization is having motivated and engaged employees. Startups inherently prioritize company culture because it is the differentiating factor between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Unfortunately, motivation is not a science, it’s an art. To find out what works best for you and your team, focus on feedback, flexibility, and goal setting. And remember: 

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do”- Steve Jobs.