How to build motivation in today's workplace

Trapped. It's a word workplace experts often use these days to describe what many American workers feel on the job.

They point to a number of factors behind that feeling: high unemployment, a tight labor market, and limited opportunities for advancement.

On top of that, firms are trimming benefits. The average wage increase last year was the smallest in 25 years, only 3.6 percent, according to one estimate. Some firms have frozen wages altogether.

Added together, these factors can paint a gloomy picture.

"What's happening is that people are staying in place because they don't perceive that they have any options, and they're dying in place. They're burning out. They're not growing, and they're living in fear," says Bruce Katcher, a psychologist and president of The Discovery Group, a management consulting firm in Sharon, Mass.

But nobody should feel as if they're stuck in a job, Mr. Katcher says.

In fact, human-resource experts say, both employers and workers ought to be making extra efforts to improve morale so workers don't feel trapped.

For one thing, numerous studies have shown that a high salary isn't paramount in producing job satisfaction. The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found that employees rank salary as only the third most important factor in how much they like their jobs: The opportunity to do "important work [that] gives a feeling of accomplishment" ranks No. 1.

Last week, a survey by Right Management Consultants found that 83 percent of some 500 workers surveyed were "motivated by challenges at work."

"Things like money and promotions can do a great job of demotivating people if they're handled poorly, but actually aren't that effective in motivating people," says Nicholas Carr, executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, which published a special issue on motivating people in January.

Threats aren't good motivators either. Often, in economic downturns, "companies or managers say or imply [to employees] that they're lucky to have a job, so don't complain," says Joseph Weintraub, a management professor at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., and author of "The Coaching Manager." "That's not a good way to motivate.... It makes employees reluctant to step up to the plate and maybe to try new initiatives.

"When you're in a survival mode," he adds, "you think differently than when you're in a success mode."

These experts and others say that those managing people in today's tough economic times should:

Link pay and perks to performance. Although this seems obvious, "Most companies do a pretty bad job of it," says Katcher. Rewards should go to those who achieve the most, based on a fair system.

"Employers can provide continuous opportunities to learn and to grow, even without promotions," Katcher points out. "Employees like that because then they know that they have more marketable skills, so that if their job does end, they'll be able to find another one more easily."

Praise those who perform well. Managers sometimes forget to do "the simple things that cost nothing: letting [employees] know how much you appreciate what they're doing on an individual basis. That can be very motivating," Katcher says.

Take employees' own goals into account. "How do you keep your best people when you don't have a lot of resources?" Professor Weintraub asks. "One of the ways is to make sure you're talking to them, finding out what's important to them."

Keep job evaluations, such as annual performance reviews, separate from these personal-developmental discussions, he says. In these sessions, ask "What is important to you? What are some ways I can help you?"

Make pay and other decisions as equitable as possible. Employees take tough news (such as no pay increase) in stride if they understand why the action has been taken, and if they feel it is being handled fairly. "If people think they are being treated unfairly ... their motivation will evaporate completely," Mr. Carr says.

Managers need "to take the time to really explain to people the business challenges the company faces and why that's forcing some tough decisions," Carr adds. "People are smart, and they'll understand that their employer, when times are tough, has to cut back."

"Honesty is very important," Katcher says. "As soon as you start telling half-truths to employees or telling them things to deceive them, they will see right through it, and you will lose their trust - maybe permanently."

Employees can also take steps to improve their own outlook on work. Rather than lying low or moping during tough times, they should:

Negotiate for perks other than pay raises. These might include more training, travel, or a more flexible schedule.

"Employees are always looking for more decision-making authority, more of a say in how they do their work, and also more control of their own time and space - flexibility," Katcher says. "Those are the kind of things that not a lot of employers provide, but are very important to employees these days because they're trying to get better balance in their lives, and they want to feel like they are respected."

Network, network, network. Don't dismiss the idea that you might actually find a better job - even in tough times.

"Never stop looking at what's out there," Weintraub advises. You may find that your current job isn't so bad or, conversely, find a much better one. Either way, you've gained by testing the waters. "You need to be ready and prepared."

That means networking, both inside and outside the company. "This is the time for people to form networks and even support groups," Weintraub says, so that you "have them if you need them."

Show your value - and be visible. Maybe you can develop a new source of revenue for your company or show how it can cut costs.

"Employees need to think about: what can I do to be more successful, and how can I help my boss and my company become more successful," Weintraub says. "You've got to sort of market yourself. You need to continue to look for ways of improving things in spite of the fact that you might not be getting the benefits, the compensation that goes along with it."

While performing well and achieving goals is essential, don't do it while hiding in your office, Weintraub advises. "People need to know what you're up to - especially your boss.... That's the No. 1 component for success."

Take a long-term approach. With many companies struggling now, Weintraub says, they value people "who are players, who are seen as [being] with you and proactive."

Your outstanding performance now, even if not currently rewarded with cash or promotions, can position you for rewards when times improve and managers begin to assess who should be first in line to share in the newly won prosperity, he says.

Questions job interviewers are asking most

Hot on the trail of a new job? A recent survey of more 2,000 recruiters and hiring managers across a broad range of industries turned up a list of "most frequently asked" job-interview questions.

You might want to distill some cogent responses in advance.

"Although an effective résumé is usually successful in getting interviews, many job-seekers hit a brick wall when it comes to offering meaningful responses during the interview," says Brad Fredericks, a spokesman for, of South Burlington, Vt., which conducted the survey. " 'Tell me about yourself' is not the cue to begin your life story."

Recruiters and hiring managers frequently said that questions are often designed to probe subjective aspects of a job candidate, ranging from work ethic to preferred management styles and assorted "soft skills."

The Top 15 interview topics:

• Describe your ideal job and/or boss.

• Why are you job hunting/leaving your current job?

• What unique experience or qualifications separate you from other candidates?

• Tell me about yourself.

• What are your strengths and weaknesses?

• Describe some of your most important career accomplishments.

• What are your short-term/long-term goals?

• Describe a time when you were faced with a challenging situation and how you handled it.

• What are your salary requirements?

• Why are you interested in this position/our company?

• What would a former boss/colleague say about you?

• What are the best and worst aspects of your last job?

• What do you know about our company?

• What motivates you? How do you motivate others?

• Are you willing to relocate?

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