Building Happy Employees: How Should Managers Motivate?


What makes us happy? A new car? A thinner waistline? A vacation home on the beach? According to Albert Ellis, American psychologist who developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, happiness cannot be bought and does not come from external circumstances, but rather is achieved through our perception of events.

However, a certain amount of external rewards is necessary for survival and, if not happiness, at least a level of comfort. Humans balance the requirement of daily work with the fulfillment of life goals and personal achievements.

HR professionals and managers are in the unique position of being able to help employees balance those goals by providing motivation, recognition, and monetary rewards.

The Scientific Approach

Some HR thought leaders look at motivation from a scientific viewpoint, drawing on proposed psychological theories, particularly Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the Self-Determination Theory (SDT), and Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory (also known as the Two Factor Theory).

“If [employees] are hungry and/or behind with the mortgage payments, more money” is the best motivation, states Tony Lyddon, Director at the Talent Management and Engagement Consultancy of Frere Lyddon Associates, referring to Maslow’s Hierarchy. The theory states that until areas lower on the pyramid, such as physiological and safety needs, are filled, an individual cannot process motivation associated with being part of a team and esteem rewards, located at the top of the pyramid.

Yet Jenny O, Assistant Professor at California State University East Bay, notes that “Motivation literature examining the self-determination theory and its sub theories would indicate that external motivators are most effective when relatively immediate results are desired…. However, if one is focused on employee retention and/or development, then more internal motivators are more effective as they facilitate greater buy-in, more consistent effort over time, and enhanced perseverance.”

While Randy Delisle, Human Resources Manager at Harbour Towers Hotel & Suites, feels that motivation is wasted if one does not first focus on relationships, working conditions, and salary. He says, “Herzberg was right, get the basics right first before tinkering with rewards.”

Looking closely at these three scientific viewpoints, one can determine that there are three choices, or a combination of all three, to consider when motivating and rewarding employees.

  1. Maslow’s Theory: Determine where each employee stands on the pyramid of needs, then provide a monetary gift or recognition based upon that information.
  2. Self-Determination Theory: Provide monetary motivation if immediate results are needed. Provide appreciation for value over time, as in continued performance, career development, or retention.
  3. Herzberg’s Theory: Employees must first be content with factors such as salary, culture, and relationships with their boss and coworkers before motivation such as rewards, advancement, or recognition will be effective.

Experience-Based Viewpoint

Martial Cijs, Entrepreneur & Founder at, takes a completely different viewpoint. He believes that “external motivators work when the task at hand needs no creative thought,” such as for mundane tasks which require strict adherence to instructions. However, he states, “For tasks that need creative thought… the promise of ‘reward’ closes the mind and actually slows down problem solving aptitude.”

Most commenters to the LinkedIn post agreed that the best method for motivating employees is a mix “praise and raise.’ “A real manager would know the employees’ needs and wants and should try to balance equally both the extrinsic and intrinsic rewards,” says Kiran Raj, Recruiter- Barclaycard at Allegis Global Services.

Mixing the Recognition with the Monetary

Gyft, a First Data company, launched a new business-to-business bulk gift card purchase program on September 29, 2015 which allows employers the ability to show appreciation for employees while giving them a monetary rewards in the form of a gift card.

Gyft’s new streamlined gift card program enables businesses to purchase in bulk. The cards are available from over 200 retailers in a variety of categories, such as Amazon, the Home Depot, Starbucks, and Target. Because Gyft Cards are digital, they can’t be lost, there are no shipping costs, and HR managers can track the entire process. Digitized gift cards are also more convenient for recipients, as they can keep them stored in their phones rather than their purses or wallets.

“This is a way for companies to show appreciation to their employees,” says CJ MacDonald, co-founder of Gyft, adding that “many companies use gift cards as a tool.”

Examples of Monetary Motivation

Monetary rewards are often easier to provide, because they are easy to give and require very little thought and virtually no insight into an employee’s personal preference.

For instance, a high-performing employee who has recently successfully completed a major project or signed a new important client might enjoy:

  • a raise
  • a bonus
  • a promotion
  • paid time off
  • a travel gift card
  • an iPad or other electronic device

Examples of Interest-Based Motivation

Finding interest-based rewards or recognition, on the other hand, requires effort on the part of the manager or HR professional. Learn about your workers, what they like, their hobbies, what they do for fun on the weekend. Then you can offer something meaningful, rather than something impersonal.

For example, the executive assistant who always arranges travel details, can find an open hour on the calendars of all six meeting attendees, and knows what everyone wants for lunch might like to know how much she is appreciated with:


There are many different views on how to motivate employees to perform well, and there certainly isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. HR professionals and managers should take on the responsibility of knowing their employees and understanding their individual needs and concerns. Surveys or engagement-monitoring apps, such as Get Hppy, will allow you to learn of obstacles facing your staff as well as ask them specific questions. While no one can be expected to “make” someone else happy, we can ensure that our employees receive the appreciation that they crave. We are tasked with motivating them to strive in their daily functions, whether that is achieved through praise or a raise.


Photo credit: Karl Cossio

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