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9 cost-effective ways to motivate teams

Tips on how to navigate a challenging marketplace, while keeping up employee morale

If there’s one bright spot in the current economy, it’s that there’s more talent on the street and voluntary turnover may soon be at a 10-year low in our industry. Hopefully you’ve taken advantage of the downturn to prune the “deadwood” at your restaurant and now the people you have are the people you want to keep. Retaining high-performers begins by understanding that they want to be challenged, recognized and productive. So here are 6 practical and cost-effective ways to motivate them via the “new” 3R’s: respect, recognition, and rewards.

First, don’t de-motivate. Most team members are intrinsically motivated to do well at work. The problem begins when something—or someone—causes the team member to be de-motivated. Identify common crew de-motivators in your operation (like insufficient training, too few hours, a disgruntled co-worker or manager) and then work to eliminate the offending system, schedule, or person. This may solve your problem without having to implement a contest or incentive. Sometimes motivation is not the problem and an incentive is not the answer.

A frightened captain makes for a frightened crew. A recession affects your hourly team’s mindset too. They read the same websites, papers, and blogs that you do, and too much bad news can impact their confidence, morale, and focus. So it’s important that GMs (and Area Directors) demonstrate resolve and realistic optimism, not constant doom-and-gloom. The donkey Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh is hardly the ideal leader. Leaders are not “energy-neutral.” You are either giving people energy or are draining it from them. Be positive and spread energy daily.

Invest in training. In a challenging economy everyone’s productivity is expected to improve. So training becomes more important than ever for raising performance and profits. For every dollar you invest in training your team, you surely save at least a dollar in advertising, because a well-trained team transforms occasional customers into loyal ones. Go to the home page at and have your managers download our free pre-shift meeting planning template. It’s a great tool to help them focus on training opportunities before, and during, each shift.

If you show people you don’t care, they’ll return the favor. When a team member or manager suggests a cost-saving or revenue-generating idea, supervisors should respond promptly and thoughtfully. The best managers and multi-unit managers have a “48-hour” promise; they investigate every team member idea and offer feedback within two days of the suggestion. In fact, this “rapid-response” strategy may save you money in the long run; there are many employees who will demand a raise simply because they’re unhappy that their suggestions are routinely ignored or undervalued.

Be flexible. The best employee incentives cost nothing. And one cost-effective reward you can offer weekly is to be flexible with younger workers’ schedule. Some want lots of hours; others want to work only one day. Try to accommodate them, because it keeps them happy and we all know the connection between a happy crew and a happy guest.

One size does not fit all. When considering an employee contest or reward, remember that like customer service and quality, rewards and recognition programs can be highly subjective. Consider the breadth of generational and cultural diversity among the different positions in your operations. Some people may be motivated by a raise or promotion, others by a t-shirt, still others by the company’s contribution to the community. Poll your team members on what kind of prizes will best motivate them to perform better, sell more, or waste less. Situational recognition is a critical strategy for improving productivity.

Music. Gift Certificates for iTunes or Amazon mp3 downloads are both cost-effective and appreciated by most team members. Use them as small, unexpected rewards for jobs well done. For Rock Band or Guitar Hero aficionados on your team, the Track Packs or expansion packs of additional songs for the games are a very popular incentive or reward for use as a “bigger” prize.

Quick and unexpected contests. Not all programs designed to motivate teams have to be lengthy month-long contests to be effective. For instance, daily shift contests for the team focused on service, selling or cleanliness will routinely motivate a complacent crew. And maybe HQ or Area Directors could occasionally send each of their restaurants an email at midnight alerting them that tomorrow will be the day for a 24-hour sales contest on a specific item like gift cards, appetizers, or desserts.

A pat on the back is just a few vertebrae up from a kick in the butt. Everyday, in your Outlook calendar, or “to-do” list, write down the name of every team member working that shift. After you compliment or recognize each person, cross their name off the list. Now do it again.

In a downturn economy smart operators focus on all the things they didn’t have time to do in an upturn economy, like thanking more team members, training better, sending a note to a loyal customer, and getting brilliant at the basics.

Ironically, if you have to have a “program” for employee recognition, you’re missing the point completely. Employee recognition and motivation is a philosophy, and a daily act, not a program. It should be woven well into every shift and also into your hiring, development and career-path systems. And for those few who don’t respond to motivation, recognition and rewards? Consider the words of author Tom Peters who said: “Give a lot, expect a lot, and if you don’t get it, prune.”

Everyday, keep it fresh, keep it focused, keep it fun. And remember to say thank you.

Jim Sullivan is CEO of, and is a popular speaker at foodservice conferences worldwide. Learn more tips on managing employees by visiting Sullivision on NRN.


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