How To Motivate Your Team & Why Your Employee Perk Won't Work

Recently, my daughter invited me on a tour of New Belgium Brewery. If you’re not familiar with New Belgium, I’m sorry...pay me a visit in Colorado and we’ll fix that.

New Belgium is a craft brewery. The company is employee owned, practices environmental sustainability, and makes a good product. They also have very low staff turnover and people wait for years to work there.

Every employee receives a complimentary pint when they finish their work for the day. On their first anniversary with the company they receive a custom fat-tire bike, a symbol of the founder’s inspiring bike trip through Belgium and their flagship product.

On their fifth anniversary they receive a trip to Belgium. And those aren’t all of the perks and benefits employees receive...

When I asked our tour guide why he and so many other staff stay with New Belgium as long as they do, he said, “The beer, bike, and Belgium are all nice…but really, it’s the people."

Why You Can’t Beer Your Way Out of Poor Leadership

New Belgium is one of those companies that other companies emulate. In fact, one person in our group said, “This is what the last company I worked for wanted…or thought they wanted. They tried the beer without actually giving a crap about the people.” That might have been the free samples talking.

Imagine if I walked up to you and said...

  • “I don’t care about you."
  • "I will use you to achieve my own goals."
  • “You have no dignity. Your worth is only what you can give me right now."
  • "Your opinions are worthless."
  • “I don’t care what you do well. Do what I want you to do, right now."
  • "I will control how you think, what you do, all your decisions, and much of your free time."
  • “Do not expect my gratitude."
  • “If you try to improve things, you are a threat to me and I will make your life miserable."
  • “I will intentionally make your work more difficult than it has to be."
  • “I will waste your time - my time matters more than yours."
  • “If you get good at your work, expect to be replaced by someone less skilled and cheaper."
  • “Please tell me what you think - so that I can ignore it and pretend you never said anything."
  • "Oh, and one more thing...Here are a ping-pong table and free donuts on Friday morning - because I want you to feel good about where you work."

How would you respond to my offer of table-tennis and donuts? If you’re like most people, you’d probably want to throw the donuts in my face and tell me what to do with the ping-pong table. You’d be insulted. And you’d be right.

The thought that I could treat you poorly and then buy your loyalty with a few donuts or free beer is ludicrous. But I see business leaders do this sort of thing all the time. And I understand why...it's easier to buy donuts than to do the real work of leading well.

Substance Then Symbols

The bike New Belgium provides its employees after one year of service is a symbol. It represents the company’s founding story, their commitment to "bike culture" and the environment, as well as their appreciation for their employees.

People may appreciate the bike, but it’s what the bike represents that really matters. As our guide said about what makes him stay: “It’s the people."

Remember, leadership is about people and purpose…relationships x results. Do you struggle with employee loyalty? Employee engagement? Productivity? Silos?

Please don’t try to adapt the symbols of another successful company (free bikes, beer, ping-pong, or donuts) and expect those outward objects to fix your internal problems. That would be like putting a colorful bandaid on a broken arm and expecting it to heal.

This is what I mean when tell audiences:

Don't Motivate. Cultivate. If you want energized, productive teams, get your substance in order first.

  • Treat people with respect
  • Honor their strengths
  • Value their time, contributions, and dignity
  • Help them to grow
  • Encourage them
  • Connect their work with meaning and purpose

When you consistently do these things, you’ll find naturally find the symbol of your substance. Symbols - whether they are cool ones like a free bike or something more mundane like a coffee mug, are insulting and hurtful when you use them instead of a healthy human relationship.

Focus on substance first, then symbols. That's the only way to make your perk actually work.