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The KickStarter

Unlocking Staff Motivation (& 3 Surprising Things You’ll Never Hear Me Say Again)

At Avion, Rhys Martin has grown from graduate to Head of Delivery. Unlocking staff motivation has been key to keeping staff engaged over time. Find out more in my article below.

I was recently listening to behavioral economist Dan Ariely talk about staff motivation. It challenged me to think about how much I know my employees: what drives them, what makes them happy, what pushes them to achieve more.

Contemplating, a few painful memories from my years in business promptly came to mind. These events (you may call them “learning experiences”) have since dramatically shaped the way I approach leadership at work. If you’d like to know 3 things related to performance that I’ll never say again, I encourage you to read on below.

1. “I’m giving away an all-expenses paid trip for 2 to New York”

It’s easy to believe that people are motivated by money. But that’s not always the case. Financial incentives are not always the answer.

At Avion, I’m in charge of business development. I always have been. About 3 years ago, I said to myself: “I wish I had a salesperson… Surely, there must be a way to figure something out that doesn’t involve hiring a full-time resource.”

So, I came up with an idea. I thought it was genius.

My idea was to set up a 12-week competition at work. At the time, I had 9 employees who I thought would jump at the challenge. The pitch?

  • Whoever raises $30k in client revenue gets first prize — an all-expenses paid trip for 2 people to New York.
  • Whoever raises $20k in client revenue gets second prize — an all-expenses paid trip for 2 people to Bali.

Cool, right? Wrong. Let me tell you that the competition was a huge flop.

I thought $30k and $20k were totally achievable in the context of a few 12-month retainers. Employees could even get creative and team up with someone else to meet targets. My only ask was to balance project work and sales activities effectively.

But upon presenting the idea, my life momentarily transformed into an episode of The Office. People shuffled quietly. It was awkward.

Afterwards, employees confided in me that they felt pitted against each other. It’s not that they weren’t open to helping with sales, but they would’ve preferred if the effort was shared.

Incentives weren’t as important to them as impact and teamwork. To them, it was better to collaborate than compete.

A quick disclaimer: Mateship is core to all Australians. There’s a better chance my idea could’ve worked in a country where competition is embraced, such as the United States. However, the moral of my anecdote is the same: understand what excites your employees — don’t make assumptions before coming up with solutions.

Don’t let things get weird. Know what drives your people before drafting any incentives.

2. “You like to work autonomously? That’s great.”

I’ve conducted many job interviews. One recurring theme with candidates is the ability to “work independently”. This might sound like music to one’s ears, but leaving employees to their own devices too often can lead to dissatisfaction at work. This is for 2 reasons:

People want to be appreciated

Without structure or a schedule for reporting in place, there’s no opportunity for ongoing mentorship, growth, recognition and reward. Regular catchups open a feedback loop that keeps staff engaged. It empowers them to ask questions and allows managers to applaud their efforts. Regular catchups also let people explore new ideas — and this means their contribution at work can be judged on more than just outcomes alone.

As an employer, I believe the onus is on me to create these systems. I balance time on the tools with various huddles. I also set regular one-on-ones to troubleshoot, reflect, and strategize with individual staff. Wherever possible, I like to arrange in-person coffees and breakfasts to connect on a more meaningful level.

“Feeling connected to what we’ve created and feeling that people appreciate us is central in the motivation equation.” — Professor Dan Ariely on recognition.

People want a sense of belonging

Over the past decade, I’ve experimented with different levels of “hands-on” and “hands-off” management. But people want to be part of something bigger than themselves. In the past, I’ve had very talented content strategists and copywriters work autonomously only to realize they may as well freelance or become an independent consultant. It’s the connection working alongside a close-knit team that ultimately keeps them on board.

Again, a good manager can sense this and should know how to play their part. I actively find opportunities for staff to collaborate on projects. I also arrange quarterly get-togethers, from bowling to virtual bingo, as well as an annual team trip. We also use Slack for office banter and practice gratitude by thanking a colleague for their help on something each week.

3. “Let me introduce you to the new boss!”

When expanding Avion beyond Australia into the US, I thought I’d hire a General Manager for our Melbourne office. It made perfect sense at the time; bringing in an experienced leader could help steer the team while I was occupied with business development opportunities overseas. I thought bringing in someone new would also freshen things up. Inject new expertise. But it didn’t. Rather, it threatened business by disrupting team I’d already built.

While there is absolutely no disrespect to the person I had hired (they were incredibly smart and skilled), the change did more harm than good.

Up until that point, my employees were super thankful for their influence in Avion’s strategic direction and business growth. A new leader with no prior part in this journey felt very destabilizing for them.

I could tell my staff were resistant and starting to question their place within the company with a new layer of management suddenly above them.

Rather than add another ‘boss’ into the mix, in hindsight it was better to upskill my existing team and more sensibly prepare for working across Australia and the US — which is what I ended up doing.

After several months:

  • I let the General Manager go and invested in ways to accelerate my employees’ development into more senior roles.
  • I used the money saved on the General Manager’s salary to lower our monthly targets and spend more time on mentoring.
  • I also brought in some external consultants for training and support.

Now I can confidently say my senior staff have earned their position.

I understand my approach may not be realistic for teams of 10+ (plus you won’t have enough time to spend with everyone!). But if your employees must be broken up into groups, seriously consider how you can upskill internally, minimize hierarchy and maximise collaboration (up, down, and crossways).

Our responsibilities are all different, but the levels of reporting are much the same. The flat structure we have at Avion brings co-workers together and makes staff hungrier to perform.

Know each other’s styles and grow as a team

In conclusion, I can confidently say that everyone on the Avion team is engaged, aware of their impact, and constantly striving at work — not just “coasting along”.

2020 was outrageously challenging and there were definitely times I had to energize employees more than usual. But my experience proves that motivation really comes down to genuinely knowing what makes your people tick, genuinely complimenting their efforts, and genuinely putting their learning and development first over any quick fixes.

About the author: Natalie Khoo built her business in Australia off the back of the 2008 recession. Having made all the mistakes since day one, she’s passionate about sharing her learnings with other business owners on a similar journey. Natalie’s career highlights include taking a 3-month scuba diving vacation in 2019 and not checking her emails once. She travels between Melbourne, Australia, and Austin, Texas, with her partner James.

To find out more: Visit the Avion website or follow Natalie on Instagram.



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Natalie Khoo

Natalie Khoo

How to do a stint on the other side of the world, build a business, cancel your wedding & not kill your partner during a global pandemic & more. 🇦🇺🇺🇸🇬🇧