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What Workers Crave More Than Money

New books and research reveal what provides the biggest payoff

By Richard Eisenberg

For older workers, a pay raise is great. But what many really, really want, in the words of The Spice Girls, is gratitude and acknowledgement of work well done.

Credit: Getty Images

That’s what I’ve concluded after interviewing authors of two new books (leadership trainer Shola Richards’ Making Work Work and Duke University professor Dan Ariely’s Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivation, out next month) and Halogen Software global practice leader Anita Bowness as well as reading recent surveys.

Their insights, I think, can be extraordinarily useful for older workers themselves and for the managers they work for.

“Providing recognition in front of a person’s peers and executives, or a handwritten ‘thank you,’ can have a longer lasting motivational effect on an employee than money,” says Bowness, who is based in Ottawa, Canada.

A Simplistic View of Money

Sometimes, Ariely says, “the simplistic view of money is hurting us.” In certain instances, he says, money motivates employees less than other things. Take the experiment in Payoff that the author and his colleagues conducted at an Intel semiconductor factory in Israel, Ariely’s home.


The managers wanted to motivate the chipmakers with a productivity bonus, so the researchers offered workers one of three types: money (about $30); a voucher for pizza or a “Well done!” compliment from their boss. (A fourth group got no bonus.) The biggest motivator: essentially a tie between the voucher and the verbal reward — each improved performance by about 6.6 percent). The smallest motivator: cash. All were better than no motivation at all.

On the second day of the experiment, those offered money performed worse than workers offered no bonus at all. And over the course of the week, the monetary bonus led to a 6.5 percent drop in performance compared with no incentive.

“Giving people a sense of progress and showing them gratitude is not too difficult to do,” says Ariely. “It’s amazing we don’t do more of it.”

Sometimes, Bowness says, money is a “demotivator” because workers either think they can’t get it or believe it’s too puny to matter. She says: “If the only recognition available to an individual is a monetary reward that may be elusive, people may not be motivated to work to that extra level. And a small, generic management-by-objectives payout might not motivate all individuals.”

Richards, of Los Angeles, agrees: “In Maslow’s 'hierarchy of needs,' money satisfies the lowest level of the pyramid. It doesn’t affect the things that matter most — like feeling important and that the work you do matters. Respect causes people to run through brick walls for people.” And, Richards adds, kindness and mutual respect means increased communication, which tends to increase revenue.

Motivational Advice for Older Workers

If you’re an employee in your 50s or 60s and not getting proper respect or gratitude, Richards says you have three choices: “Get in, get up or get out.”

Making Work Work

“Get in” means finding others at work to support and connect with you. “Get up,” which Richards says worked for him, means to “do what you have to do” so your work demands more respect and appreciation.

And “Get out,” says Richards, is the last resort. But it may be what’s necessary. “If you’re in a situation where you feel the work you’re doing is not valued, it’s a toxic environment and no one is there to support you, take an inventory to see how this is affecting your health, your family and your life," Richards says. "Don’t give your organization the power to ruin your life. There’s real honor to understanding it’s time to go.”

Ariely’s advice for older workers: If you’re not hearing any kind words at work, point it out. “Help them [bosses] understand how important it is, and hopefully they will do it."

Motivational Advice for Managers of Older Workers

If you manage older workers, the experts told me, showing your gratitude can go a long way in getting the best out of them and keeping them from leaving.

“When people see there’s purpose to what they do and in getting better in their job or that they’re recognized for a job well done, they become more motivated,” says Bowness.

But, Richards told me, many bosses don’t show workers gratitude or acknowledge their efforts because they believe kindness and respect don’t persuade people to do the work they need to do.

And, he added, many HR executives think that way, too.


“A pocket of folks believe your job is to put your head down, go to work and go home — that work is not a place to be happy or make friends,” said Richards. “That’s incredibly archaic and dangerous. But it’s convenient.”

Richards vehemently disagrees with managers who believe showing respect means you’re not being tough enough.

“They think kindness and toughness are at two opposite ends of the spectrum. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he says. “Some of the best bosses are tough, but kind. Bosses who say kindness makes people soft have a skewed idea of what kindness is.”

His advice to managers: “As a leader, one of the best gifts you can give your staff is to value them.”

In his book, Richards lays out five ways managers should value their employees.

1. Value their ideas. “It goes such a long way,” said Richards.

2. Value their work.

3. Value their time. That means starting and ending meetings on time and being present with them when they’re talking.

4. Value their ability.

5. Value them as people. “It may sound silly, but small things like saying ‘Hello’ in the morning. And I’ve seen leaders who don’t know the names of the people they’re supervising. Things like that have such major effects,” says Richards.

Ariely suggests employers give employees “a sense of progress and a sense that 'you don’t work for me, but we work together.'”

To Bowness, it’s about a “two-way” dialogue. She advises managers: “Listen to your employees and provide meaningful feedback. People like to get constructive feedback, but getting a ‘This is great and this is why’ can really motivate employees.”

Managers would also do well to heed the disturbing news from two recent surveys:

The Willis Towers Watson benefits consulting firm found that only 35 percent of the 2,000 employers worldwide it surveyed said their managers are effective at giving employees regular coaching and feedback on their performance.

And when Paychex, a business processing outsourcing firm, asked 2,000 people why they’d leave their jobs, 53 percent said “employers don’t care about employees” and 45 percent said “lack of recognition or reward.”

To cite another musical reference, managers, follow the advice of Glen Campbell and Try a Little Kindness.

Photograph of Richard Eisenberg
Richard Eisenberg is the former Senior Web Editor of the Money & Security and Work & Purpose channels of Next Avenue and former Managing Editor for the site. He is the author of "How to Avoid a Mid-Life Financial Crisis" and has been a personal finance editor at Money, Yahoo, Good Housekeeping, and CBS MoneyWatch. Read More
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