Leadership 101:  How to Inspire Your Employees

By Ray Silverstein

for The Business Journal (Phoenix)


You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.


Similarly, you can make your employees work nine to five—the basic requirement for earning a paycheck—but coaxing them to greatness is another matter.


These days, we all need to get the most from our resources, and for most small businesses, human assets are their #1 asset. So how do you motivate those #1 assets to perform at a higher level?


Compensation is important, but it isn’t everything. Admittedly, a salary satisfies some very basic human needs, because it pays for food, shelter, and life’s essentials. But humans are more complex than that. Beyond basic survival needs, people have a need to feel valued. When you appeal to that need, you inspire your employees to raise the bar.


Sure, you can manage through power and intimidation, but demeaning people won’t inspire their loyalty. Quite the opposite. It’s preferable to manage through genuine leadership. How do you do that? By treating employees with respect and creating a gratifying employer/employee relationship.


Six Ways to Motivate Employees

Motivating employees doesn’t mean popping out of your office every few months and giving a rousing appreciation speech. That’s fine, too, but it’s in the daily back-and-forth that we show our true colors. In other words…


  • When your employees talk, listen. Don’t interrupt; don’t shoot down their ideas or scoff at their complaints.


  • Recognize and reward good performance. Develop a formal recognition program. It doesn’t have to be a dollar bonus. Present an “employee of the month.” plaque, reserve a special parking space, honor your people in front of their peers. Corny? Maybe. Effective? Infinitely.


  • Give credit where credit is due. If someone shares a good idea, attribute it to them (even if you modify it to put it into practice). This encourages employees to wear their thinking caps, and that keeps them engaged.


  • Always ask for suggestions. People want to have a voice. Plus, your employees know aspects of your business you’ve probably forgotten. You never know where your next great idea is coming from.


  • Delegate. Delegating not only frees you up to focus on more important issues, it gives employees a chance to grow and learn. It also demonstrates your confidence in them.  


  • Look for something to compliment rather than criticize. When you do critique performance, always start with the positive.


Open Up Communication Lines

Everyone knows good communication is essential, but it’s surprising how often we forget in the midst of day-to-day busyness. So…


  • Make sure you and your employees are on the same page. When a worker tells you something, repeat it back to him/her. (“Is this what I heard you say…”). Similarly, when you share important information, ask your listener to summarize what he or she just heard.


  • Don’t be mysterious about the business. Employees want to know what’s going on; they have a stake in the business, too. When you have a big success—say, a major sale—celebrate it. Spring for cake or pizza; make an announcement.


  • When times are tough, be truthful, but frame it in a positive, reassuring light. Don’t let the rumor mill run wild. When morale plummets, so does productivity. Leadership means being proactive.


  • Schedule monthly or quarterly status meetings, to keep workers in the loop. Create an environment where employees feel comfortable sharing with you, even when it’s bad news, so you can nip problems in the bud.


  • Be open to criticism, but don’t let meetings turn into gripe sessions. Encourage critics to meet with you privately. Then check out their complaints and report back. By being open and responsive, you’ll earn your employees’ trust.


  • Remember, only 20%-40% of what we communicate is verbal. The rest is expressed through our body language and facial expression. So pay attention to what your body is conveying, and note what employees’ silently convey as well.


In summary, a dictatorship is not leadership. If you want your employees to go the extra mile, lead them there—with respect, good communication, and unfailing appreciation. When people follow you willingly, you can take them almost anywhere.


Ray Silverstein is president of PRO:  President’s Resource Organization, a network of small business peer group advisory groups in Phoenix and Chicago. The author of “The Best Secrets of Great Small Businesses” and a columnist for Entrepreneur magazine online, Ray invites you to a local PRO meeting.  He may be reached at 1-800-818-0150 or