In The Workplace

In this pandemic, what’s the best approach in motivating workers when we can’t afford to give them pay increases? In the past, you’ve been advocating zero-cash motivational strategies that we find practical. However, at times, I find that to be a bit corny in certain situations. Is there a better way? — White Linen.

Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) served in government under President John F. Kennedy. One day, the New York Times ran a profile on Galbraith, a copy of which was placed on a table one morning as he was having breakfast with Kennedy, who promptly asked him what he thought of the article.

Galbraith said it was all right, but he couldn’t understand why the article called him arrogant. The president replied: “I don’t see why not. Everybody else does.”

Really, arrogance manifests itself readily, either consciously or unconsciously. The workplace is no exception. Managers display a lot of arrogance either by word or deed, in the knowledge that many workers will simply keep quiet about it. This is wrong. That’s why I believe that “problem workers are created by problem managers,” especially when I see people who act arrogantly at work, even those with little authority.

This happens all the time when management holds outdated ideas and a command-and-control-based style in supervising workers.

I’m glad you like my zero-cash employee motivational strategies. I have a truckload of these ideas that I can share with anyone. In essence, however, it’s all about being kind to people. You can’t go wrong with that. The only challenge is when and how to start practicing kindness to your workers without appearing insincere.

The underlying idea of being kind may be the reason you feel a “bit corny” when you implement these strategies. So, it boils down to establishing and maintaining rapport with workers.

Many managers fail to maintain rapport or friendship with their workers out of arrogance. They are snobs for some reason. They don’t care much about how the workers feel in certain situations. They reject their ideas and legitimate complaints as a matter of routine, as if they held a monopoly on the intellectual capacity to solve problems.

Conversely, there are also managers who excel in their relationships with workers. They don’t spend much money to motivate their people and yet they’re respected. That’s because they expend much effort to talk to people, if only to maintain a healthy and productive work environment where everyone is energized and working hard despite meager pay and perks.

In talking to more than 10,000 managers and workers in the course of my management career, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s easy to talk to people if you start the ball rolling by asking three important questions focused on their well-being. These are:

Have you had lunch (or taken your coffee break)?

Depending on the timing, managers use this as an ice-breaker whenever they see their workers in the common areas like the hallway, elevator, meeting room, even the toilets. It’s like asking “how are you?” of people you haven’t seen in a while.

This question is important for initiating small talk, should not be ignored even by bosses who are foreigners, as we Filipinos are known to eat at least five times a day. If a worker says “not yet,” then consider it as an opportunity to eat with him, now that you have your opening to explore other things that include the worker’s difficulties and career goals.

What is your biggest challenge in your job?

Sometimes, this might put a worker on the defensive. Therefore, it’s best to soften the impact of this question by rephrasing it so it does not appear that the employee is incompetent. In asking this question, ensure that there are no other workers around who can hear you probing.

Whatever the answer, offer your assistance in solving any problems. Or ask for ideas on how to solve it without giving him any false expectations. Every step of the way, emphasize the fact that the organization may not be in a position to solve the problem at the moment. You may be surprised that many of the issues may be solved without spending much money.

How can I help you achieve your career goals?

Almost everyone has career expectations. If not, they aspire to job security and a reasonable salary and benefits, commensurate to their skill and work performance. Even if a worker does not aspire to a supervisory or managerial level, at least make an attempt to understand their interests.

Without understanding the career expectations of your people, you will always be at a loss how to treat them. In this situation, it would have been helpful if you encourage the worker to aspire for something by learning other skills that could help him do other work. That way, if the person changes his mind, he will still be available to suit up for the job.

As I’ve written in this space since 1993, there’s only one common thread to all this: People management is an act of kindness with an expiration date. If you can start being kind to people, you’ll be seen as an ideal manager who is approachable and gentle. If the workers don’t reciprocate, then you’re free to do whatever is reasonable under the circumstances, including but not limited to implementing drastic action.

In a situation such as this, you need to be sensitive and alert by taking the pulse of the workplace. You can only do this by maintaining friendships with people. If you can do this as a matter of routine, you can change the nature of your questioning that will allow you to take a deep dive on almost anything.

Be patient but persistent in practicing kindness to everyone. It’s simple, practical, and low-cost and yet it’s a powerful approach to management.


Send anonymous questions to or via

You can also chat with him on Facebook or LinkedIn.