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Light Their Fires

Why does one contract security company grow and prosper while another flounders? Why does one manager exceed his goals while another falls short? The answer is simple: employee motivation.

Knowing how to motivate employees is an important part of any manager’s toolbox. Managers who master the art of lighting their employees’ fires create a productive environment that is a positive force for the company.

These principles apply equally to security departments. When employees are not motivated, they do not perform well, and it shows immediately.

FORTUNATELY, BEING AN EFFECTIVE motivator does not require a degree in psychology. Effective motivators simply employ a commonsense approach that includes setting achievable objectives, using their employees’ skills wisely, understanding the factors behind poor performance, being consistent, providing rewards, breaking bad behavior patterns, leading by example, communicating effectively, building a team, and saying “thank you” for a job well done.

Achievable objectives. Master motivators take time to make sure their employees understand exactly what is expected of them. They also make sure that, through orientation and training, each employee knows how to perform all the aspects of the job, and that each worker has the right tools to do the job well.

Using skills. All security jobs have their own unique characteristics, needs, and requirements. With that in mind, effective employers assign employees to specific job functions based on how well their interests and skill sets match the demands of the job.

When the right employees are matched to the right job, productivity and employee happiness increase. For example, consider a security guard (we’ll call him Smith) who prefers the outdoors and varied duties, is highly intelligent, and dislikes paperwork. Smith will not be motivated to work in a slow-paced indoor public museum where duties include mountains of paperwork and routine tasks.

If he is forced to work in these conditions, it is likely that his performance will be poor or that he will quit soon after being hired. If, however, Smith is stationed at a busy front gate, closer to his personal tastes, he will be happier and more productive.

Managers who spend time profiling employees and matching them to appropriate jobs can avoid forcing employees into situations where they will be uncomfortable or bored. A simple technique is first to list several pairs of opposite characteristics, such as indoors versus outdoors, stationary versus walking or riding, and complex duties versus simple duties. The next step is to describe the work site according to these characteristics.

All new employees should then be asked to select their preferences between each of the paired options. In that way, the manager can try to assign each employee to the slot that most closely matches his or her preferences.

Understanding performance. Contrary to what some senior managers may think, a tendency toward poor performance is not an innate characteristic of any work force. Most employees have a natural desire to perform well. So what causes some workers to become poor performers? It is sometimes a result of personal problems, but in many cases it arises from disincentives encountered in the job environment. Thus, the starting point to being a good motivator is to seek out and remove the barriers that keep employees from doing their best.

To illustrate this point, let’s assume that a supervisor (we’ll call him Wright) was behind in his follow-up accident-investigation summary. Instead of admitting his failure, Wright invented an excuse that took him more time to create than it would have taken him to complete the requirement.

Wright’s manager discovered the problem, and when he sought an explanation from Wright, he discovered that the company had changed accident investigation forms so frequently in the last year that the beleaguered supervisor did not know which form to use. Additionally, Wright was never given instructions on the particular form being used.

The manager now understood the root cause of the poor performance. He solved the problem by taking the time to explain the new procedures. The clear lesson is that employees in this type of situation often want to improve their performance, but they need management to take the initiative and provide the tools to make it happen.

In another situation, an officer (we’ll call her Casey) was criticized for not being able to give the public better directions around the art museum where she was assigned. The security manager at the museum had a discussion with her and discovered that Casey was a visual learner and needed a map of the various floors in the building to see where she was telling people to go.

Casey had originally been trained by verbal instructions alone. Armed with a map, she could now direct people who were lost, and she subsequently improved her performance dramatically. Giving Casey a map was a small but well-timed intervention that had positive results for her performance and the company’s productivity.

Being consistent. Good motivational intentions can be easily undermined when managers are not consistent in demonstrating a good standard of work for employees to follow. Managers should lay out their expectations for all employees in clear terms with justifications. That way there can be no doubt about the employee’s understanding and acceptance of those expectations.

Providing rewards. Most employees have in common a desire for achievement and recognition, but each employee is motivated to perform well for different reasons, and each may want recognition to take a different form. For some, public recognition may be the best reward, while for others, it may be the promise of a promotion. Managers must take the time and effort to know their employees well enough to understand what best motivates them. Additionally, managers should consider that the same employee may need to be motivated in different ways over the course of his or her career.

For example, a new security officer might be motivated best by the chance of promotion, whereas an officer who has already been promoted to a second-tier position may simply need a private “thank you” note sent to his or her home, or a longevity pin or ribbon to display on his or her uniform. One supervisor may want a pay raise, while another would respond better to tuition assistance for some coursework he or she is taking at a local community college.

Managers should take care to make sure that what they are using as a reward is rewarding to the employee receiving it. They must, of course, also make sure that all reward systems can stand up to scrutiny, legal or otherwise. Thus, in the case of tuition assistance, it may simply be a benefit that is available to any employee on an equal basis, but if the manager knows of one employee’s interest in this benefit, the manager can assist the employee in understanding how to apply for it.

Tailoring the response to the employee is key. For example, officer Kirby’s manager may think that a public acknowledgment of his outstanding emergency response will do the trick. If the manager asked Kirby his preference, however, the manager would have discovered that Kirby is embarrassed by such attention-grabbing praise.

Extrinsic vs. intrinsic. It is useful to know which employees are motivated extrinsically and which are motivated intrinsically. When dealing with employees who are driven by external rewards, such as pay raises, managers should vary the types and value of the award, or the award will eventually lose its potency.

On the other hand, when dealing with employees who are intrinsically motivated, the smart manager will look for jobs that can help the employee achieve a sense of internal pride and satisfaction. The most effective managers will uncover ways to help employees move from being externally motivated to being internally driven, because the latter is stronger and lasts longer.

For example, author Cottringer at one time worked as a chief caseworker in a prison. The oppressive and restrictive job atmosphere did not jibe with his creative needs. Fortunately, the prison warden realized that Cottringer’s talents were being underused, and he asked him to paint motivational signs that were posted around the prison. By allowing the author to paint the signs, the warden gave an employee a sense of pride and accomplishment, while at the same time doing something that improved the prison.

Breaking bad habits. Although employees are motivated by various factors, they all have common needs, including feedback about their performance. When a manager notices a pattern of bad habits, it is important to find the “hidden rewards,” such as inadequate reprimands for poor work, that allow the behavior to continue.

For example, one supervisor in an organization with which the authors worked continually undermined the company discipline policy in an effort to gain favor with his subordinates. When the supervisor’s manager picked up on this bad habit, she was able to explain that there were alternative methods for gaining the employees’ respect—such as starting a performance incentive program to reward better safety practices—that did not violate company policy.

Leading by example. Employees learn more from what they see than what they are told. Thus, a manager’s most effective motivational tool is his or her own work ethic and attitude.

When managers demonstrate a positive attitude and enthusiasm for doing their job, employees will see the good example and attempt to follow it. How managers act generally outweighs what they say.

For example, a security manager in one company had a dreadful ego problem. He let all the employees know he was better than everyone else and that he could delegate distasteful tasks that he didn’t want to do to others further down on the company food chain. The overall morale and subsequent performance of the company suffered from the manager’s behavior, and eventually the company owner recognized that this situation was hurting the company and decided to replace him.

When the owner hired the new manager, he made sure that he understood the valuable principle of leading by example. That manager rolled up his sleeves and started doing clerical and other administrative tasks. As a result of the new manager’s example, many employees volunteered to assume more responsibilities and productivity and job satisfaction rose dramatically.

Communicating effectively. Good communication is also a critical tool for managers who want to be motivators. If communication is to be effective, it must go both ways, of course. With that in mind, a good rule for managers to follow is: listen twice and talk once.

It is also important for any communication from management to be clear. Managers should, when possible, make their memos short and simple. Where memos carry instructions for some new policy or procedure, it is also a good idea to follow up with a quick personal meeting with employees to make sure that their interpretation of the information is correct.

Explain tedious duties. Managers should look for opportunities to discuss job duties, especially tedious duties like paperwork, with their employees. The manager should explain to employees why it is important that they perform these seemingly pointless tasks. They should explain how the information provided is used and how it helps the organization as a whole. This type of small intervention can produce big results.

Explain unpopular actions. Whenever managers must carry out an unpopular duty that has the potential to hurt employee morale and motivation, they should take time to explain the “why” behind their actions. It is often surprising how a reasonable explanation can take away the bad taste in an employee’s mouth and persuade him or her to accept the unpopular action without much resistance.

In one security company with which the authors worked, the president was shocked at losing a $2 million contract with a government facility due to government spending cutbacks. He called his staff together, told them the bad news, and asked for their suggestions. Each employee offered several suggestions to cut expenses, and a few even offered to accept part-time hours.

Despite this major hiccup, the company was back on track in less than a month due to the actions of the president and his employees. And morale did not suffer as it might have if the president had not been forthcoming with employees about the company’s problems.

Managers need to remember that employees can usually handle bad news better than is generally assumed. They may not agree with an unfavorable decision, but they are more likely to accept and support it if they are kept informed and made aware of the rationale behind any new policies.

Defensive communication. A good manager also understands that defensive communication is counterproductive and is likely to lower staff motivation. Defensive communication is any form of communication that appears to be controlling, judgmental, insensitive, overly certain, dishonest, or superior. In contrast, using a more supportive tone—conveying equality, freedom, tentativeness, empathy, honesty, and acceptance—will help managers improve the motivation of employees.

Managers should be aware of the tone of the written communication they are using and work toward maintaining a positive communication style. A good place to start is for managers to review the memos they have given to their staff. Using a highly critical eye, managers should look for language that could be construed as negative by the employees. This type of self-reflection is necessary to preserve positive communication.

Managers must also avoid making quick, overly critical judgments and being over-controlling of employees. To motivate staff to do their best, managers need instead to use supportive communication by establishing equality, showing employees what to do, and allowing them to decide how to do it.

Good motivation is a difficult balancing act between emphasizing consistency for the good of the facility and listening to and acting on the unique concerns of individual employees. Basic human nature involves the opposing needs of wanting to be respected for our individuality and at the same time wanting to be treated fairly and equally, just like everyone else. Communicating effectively helps everyone feel that both of these concerns are being addressed.

Some managers do not appreciate the value of just listening, especially if they don’t think they can address the problem. They may simply think it is their job to spell out the company policy and make sure it is followed. That’s a mistake.

Employees need to have their individual concerns and issues heard, even if a manager can’t act on them in their favor. Let’s illustrate the point with a security manager named Harry. Harry takes the time to listen to two of his officers complaining about low wages, because he knows the issue is important to them—even though he knows he cannot change their pay rate. Harry goes a step further and makes a few suggestions as to how the officers might set up a budget to manage their money better. Arranging enough listening time for individual employees can have major motivational payoffs.

Additionally, managers should elicit additional information when concerns are raised to make sure that they understand what the employee is really worried about. The manager should practice active listening skills such as asking questions instead of making statements.

This approach conveys to the employees that they are respected and that their concerns are important to the manager. In some cases, it may also reveal problems and lead managers to see that a policy or procedure needs to be modified.

Teambuilding. A good team working together toward a common goal can accomplish much more than any individual employee can on his or her own. Managers should, therefore, foster teambuilding as a motivational aid.

For example, in the 1990s the Chicago Bulls had one of the greatest players ever, Michael Jordan. Coaches on the team, however, knew that winning championships did not depend on one man alone, and they developed a team-oriented strategy that ensured that the team, and not just one player, succeeded. This is an example of the Gestalt Principle, which says that the whole is much more than just the sum of its parts.

Managers seeking to build a team philosophy should look for opportunities to build a sense of ownership and responsibility. One method for accomplishing this goal is to encourage team thinking and collaboration.

If, for instance, a department has an operational problem, the manager should consider assigning a team of employees the task of finding the cause and brainstorming a solution. This approach can often result in a more productive and more efficient work environment, where employees have a sense of ownership in, and responsibility for, the company’s future.

But managers shouldn’t just throw out the word “team,” point to a few workers, and walk away. Building a good team means making sure that everyone makes a contribution.

One way to achieve this goal is for managers to host a team meeting. The goal could be to brainstorm ideas of how to build the most productive security department. In this scenario, the manager should encourage members to introduce themselves and mention the skills and knowledge they offer the team. A discussion should then take place that takes into account how each member can use his or her unique knowledge and skills to help the team achieve its goals.

Saying thank you. The most powerful two words a manager can say to an employee who has done a good job are “thank you.” In fact, leadership guru Max DePree says a leader’s first responsibility is to tell people where they are going and the last is to say “thank you” when they get there.

When these words are timely and genuine, they hit the motivational bull’s eye. The amazing thing about these two words is that they are free. Writing personal thank you notes and sending them to employees at home is also quite effective. Employees never get tired of hearing or reading “thank you” when it is spoken or written from the heart.

Managers have it in their power to help all of their employees feel a sense of reward and accomplishment through the simple motivational methods discussed here. By practicing these simple fire-lighting techniques with all employees, managers can heat up performance, while also improving retention and job satisfaction.

William Cottringer, Ph.D., is president of Puget Sound Security. He is also a college teacher and expert security witness for Technical Advisory Service for Attorneys (TASA). In addition, he is the author of You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too and Light Your Fire: Thrive With Positive Passion. Jeff Kirby is CEO and chairman of Puget Sound Security and president of the Washington State Security Council.