Better than Bonuses: 4 Motivators that Matter More than Money

by Shelbi Gomez
, 4 min read
Better than Bonuses: 4 Motivators that Matter More than Money

Since the recently imposed tax cuts, many major corporations (including Walmart, Home Depot, Verizon, and Disney) have announced that they will be giving one-time bonuses to employees. Everyone loves a bonus, and these corporations are certainly benefiting their employees. But cold, hard cash isn’t always the best motivator.

Sound far-fetched? Take a look at these findings:

  • “Despite the popular theorizing, results suggest that pay level is only marginally related to satisfaction,” according to a study published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior.
  • “There are no significant differences in employee engagement by income level,” according to Gallup.
  • Bonuses did increase performance for a short time, but had no effect on long-term motivation, according to one experiment.

What could be more motivating than a higher paycheck?

I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade (I love a bonus as much as the next person), but a recent Workfront survey found that there are actually four things that are more influential than money when it comes to motivating employees to excel at work.


See this infographic about our research into what motivates knowledge workers for more facts about what inspires today's employees.


1. Praise from a Boss or Manager

The number-one motivator for knowledge workers is praise from a boss or manager. Everyone likes a compliment, and it turns out that praise at work can actually help employees perform at their best.

All managers strive to keep the best talent on their teams, and recognizing success and a job well done is one way they can do this while also increasing engagement and creativity. And it’s not just our survey that shows that employees love some praise.

Leadership expert Victor Lipman shares how he has been part of all kinds of employee engagement surveys, and recognition is always a hot topic:

"One thing that repeatedly struck me was the persistence with which employee recognition always ended up as one of the top issues. When it came to being recognized, employees never got enough."

The findings of a 10-year motivation study, which analyzed more than 200,000 interviews with employees and managers, found that managers who effectively recognize employees benefit from lower turnover rates, better organizational results, and a stronger leadership image.

Jess Ostroff, CEO of Don’t Panic Management, has a simple tip for making praise a natural part of management: “I always like to remember the two-for-one rule with giving feedback; always give two pieces of positive feedback for every one piece of negative.”

2. Self-Satisfaction

The way we feel about our work and whether we are satisfied with our jobs has a bigger influence over us than even our salary, research reveals. When employees are happy and fulfilled with their work, they will excel and produce better results.

Self-satisfaction is more than just loving your job, though. It’s feeling like you contribute to something bigger, that you are using your talents to their fullest potential, and that you are a valued part of the team.

According to research from the Society for Human Resources Management, the top five contributors to job satisfaction are:

  1. Respectful treatment of all employees at all levels
  2. Compensation/pay
  3. Trust between employees and senior management
  4. Job security
  5. Opportunities to use your skills and abilities in your work

When workers have regular opportunities to use their skills to their fullest potential, they feel like they are making meaningful contributions, which adds to their level of self-satisfaction.

3. Achieving Objectives

No one likes to feel like they are spinning their wheels at work, never actually achieving anything. Over-aggressive goals, goals that are constantly changing, and a lack of clear objectives can be detrimental to knowledge workers and their teams.

If you don’t know what you are working toward, how can you muster up any motivation to get anything done?

But it’s not just about having goals and objectives for the sake of having them. In his famous studies on goal setting and motivation, Dr. Edwin Locke looked at data collected over a 10-year period and found that 90% of the time, more specific and challenging goals motivated people to perform better.

Lee Odden, CEO at TopRank Marketing believes that setting goals helps people become more self-motivated in a way that no other tactic can:

"Those who set high standards and are driven to excellence set the bar higher than any manager, client, or customer would."

Helping employees achieve specific, challenging objectives is very motivational—even more so than a one-time bonus.

4. Praise from Clients

Finally, our survey found that praise from clients also beats out salary when it comes to motivating workers.

Depending on your team’s role, clients could be internal coworkers who rely on your deliverables or external stakeholders. Sometimes, hearing that praise from a client can be difficult if feedback is buried in a manager’s inbox or if workers never get the chance to communicate with clients.

A simple solution is to use an operational system of record, or a comprehensive work-management platform, to make communication more transparent. This gives clients and stakeholders a chance to comment on work in one, central location where everyone can see it, make necessary changes, and feel motivated by feedback.

While giving bonuses is sure to give employee morale a boost, it turns out that offering praise, helping employees feel satisfied with their work, and recognizing when objectives are met can actually be more inspiring and motivational. So by all means, “show them the money,” but throw in some targeted recognition and a few opportunities to excel while you’re at it.


See our post "4 Ways Managers Can Restore Team Members’ Motivation" for more advice on how to motivate your team.

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