It's a jungle out there. Cash is dear, the lackluster economy is driving competitors to slash prices aggressively, and hungry competitors are surfacing from overseas. To stay competitive, organizations need to keep productivity high while on a budget. Doing this has never been more important, but it doesn't have to be hard if the leader you're staring at in the mirror knows how to motivate employees.

Leaders who adopt certain practices can drive productivity in many ways at virtually no cost. I place the practices into two categories: general practices that apply to all employees and employee-specific practices.

General Practices
The biggest general productivity-boosting practice comes from delivering a plan that takes employees from point A to point B. Point B needs to be some distance from point A, or you'll get a yawn from employees rather than increased productivity. You'll also need to make sure that every employee has specific roles and deadlines in the plan and that each is held accountable for meeting the due dates with quality. Employees' juices really flow when they know they are accountable for delivering something important to a company's success.

Another employee productivity booster is being generous with praise for employees who go the extra mile, improve their performance, meet stretch deadlines or exceed expectations. It's important to make sure the praise is deserved, because gratuitous comments are not motivating to the recipient and demotivating to everyone else. The impact that recognizing employees has on productivity never ceases to amaze me -- but it's easy to understand because so many leaders are stingy with praise. When employees finally have a boss who recognizes their achievements, they are flattered, energized and grateful that their boss can tell a slacker from a producer.

The productivity dividends from being a role model leader can also be huge. So many employees have worked in Dilbertesque environments that when they have a boss who earns their respect, they are motivated to be part of her team and to demonstrate that they are valuable members of the team. As a role model, a leader wants to telegraph ideal employee behaviors, such as being timely, organized, collaborative, considerate, honest, quality-oriented, empathetic, a good communicator, a learner, having a good attitude and taking initiative.

Employee-Specific Practices
When it comes to employee-specific practices, the first thing to remember is that unique genes and upbringing mean that all employees are slightly different, and so are their motivations. Detect their motivational hot buttons, and productivity will soar. To reduce the complexity of creating employee-specific motivational plans, I use a few devices to place employees into groups, including: 1) using the information imparted in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, 2) determining motivation types and 3) knowing whether an employee is introverted or extroverted.

  1. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs defines the order in which employees are generally motivated to satisfy their needs. Physiological, or food and shelter, is the need satisfied first; safety is second; social needs third; self-esteem fourth; and self-actualization, or being all that one can be, is fifth. When leaders know which employees are trying to satisfy which need and focus on appealing to it, increased productivity is a natural outcome. Keep in mind that appealing to a need that is already satisfied will do nothing for productivity and that a satisfied need can become unsatisfied and in need of being satisfied again. For example, when the recession hit, millions of employees who were trying to satisfy their third-, fourth- or fifth-level needs reverted to making sure that physiological and safety needs were being met. Leaders who didn't notice the change found themselves managing unmotivated employees who were desperate for their bosses to give them some assurances that their jobs were safe rather than hosting company get-togethers that might appeal to the social need, or offering challenging projects to satisfy a need for self-esteem.
  2. The late David McClelland, a Harvard psychology professor for three decades, identified three major groupings of motivational types: achievement-motivated, power-motivated and affiliation-motivated. I have found that knowing an employee's type is indispensable to driving productivity. An achievement-motivated employee will be supercharged when given an opportunity to make a significant difference or advance his or her skills. A power-motivated employee will be energized by money, winning, a big office or anything that communicates power. An affiliation-motivated employee is electrified by working with agreeable colleagues. Too many times I have watched executives scratching their heads when a big bonus scheme failed to deliver boosts in productivity. Little did they know that the perceived 800-pound gorilla of motivation is a 99-pound weakling when it comes to influencing achievement- and affiliation-motivated employees.

    Which is more important to employee motivation, satisfying a need on Maslow's Hierarchy or appealing to motivational types? Maximizing motivation requires you to appeal to both. Keep in mind that if someone is struggling to meet her physiological or safety needs, helping to satisfy these needs may be the only thing she finds motivational.

  3. Is an employee introverted or extroverted? In general, employees who are extroverted will be most productive when they are out pressing the flesh or working on tasks that require engagement with people. Employees who are introverted will be most productive when they are working on projects that require contemplation and working alone. Send an introvert to forge relationships at a networking event, and productivity will be low. Place an extrovert on a committee to analyze the implications of reams of statistics, and productivity will be similarly low.

    I am often asked how to identify need levels, motivational types and whether someone is introverted. My solution isn't infallible, but it's pretty accurate, reliable -- and quicker and cheaper than a battery of tests. This solution is caring enough about your employees to observe their behaviors and responses. Incidentally, when you heighten your attention to employee behaviors, the employees will notice that you care, and that will give you another free productivity boost.

One last thing: If your competitors have higher productivity because of higher wages or bigger investments in technology, you can gain the upper productivity hand when you focus your attention on motivating employees. Management is a people's game, and there is nothing that will yield higher productivity dividends. I have found that a motivated employee can easily be twice as productive as a marginally motivated employee.

When you appeal to the desires of employees to contribute to the achievement of company goals, recognize employees for a job well done, behave as a role model and appeal to individual employee motivations, you demonstrate your knowledge that management is a people's game. Furthermore, you show that you know a leader's No. 1 job is motivating her employees every day -- because that is the key to increasing productivity and staying competitive.

Kathleen Brush, Ph.D., MBA, is a global business consultant, a turnaround executive and a professor of international business and management. She is the author of the book, Leadership=Motivation=Innovation+Productivity: Get ready for the latest global challenges