Money ISN’T Everything, but Free ISN’T Cheap

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Confession: I have a client who can’t afford to pay my regular rate. I don’t work with this client often because, well, money. As a self-employed person, money matters to me in a way that it probably doesn’t matter to employees. But get this: it isn’t the only factor that I consider, and the client that I’m talking about knows that. I didn’t tell her that. Somehow, she has paid enough attention to me and has figured it out. So, when she asks me to do a project with her organization, she has thought enough about me to make it enticing. She has made working with her and her team appeal to me although she can’t pay me. She goes out of her way to make it work because she wants something and values me as a vehicle to get it.

Leaders and managers of organizations have to learn to do the same with their employees, especially when they that don’t have cash to offer as an incentive. Sometimes leaders feel stuck around the topic of creating incentives and building a positive culture that isn’t limited to potlucks and birthday cakes. Interestingly, I actually disagree with the idea that the only thing that motivates employees is money. In fact, if organizations find themselves paying more money for basic things that employees ought to do simply because they are reliable professionals, more money actually detracts from a positive culture. Incentives for the basics teach employees that they can do the least and be treated like royalty for it.

So, what do you do when you can’t easily write checks? You to invest in building relationships with your team. Leadership without money demands creativity, attentiveness, and deliberateness (and a degree of risk; however, that discussion will be covered in a separate post). More than anything, your perspective has to include seeing yourself as an advocate for each of your team members because you see their value. If your team members come to see you as a reasonable, principled advocate who is not merely interested in personal gain, hogging credit, and wielding power, you have a tremendous amount of leverage and a field of opportunity. Below, are a few suggestions to get you started – some of these suggestions are no-cost, some are low-cost, but they all take time.


1. Acknowledgement & Feedback
The catch to feedback is that it must be specific. “You did a great job” isn’t enough. I’m talking about, “We appreciated how you lead the group. Specifically, you managed the conflict between Kelly and Mike well when you picked up on their body language and talked about the elephant in the room. But you did it without making the situation more tense when you started by acknowledging what was important to both of them.” Generic attaboys and attagirls aren’t sufficient. Give employees the type of feedback that they can build on and use in a promotion interview.

The same is true for critical feedback. Tell the person exactly what went wrong, but don’t couch it in the “feedback sandwich”. Instead of the feedback sandwich, manage tension with clarity, two-way communication, and tone of voice and body language. Additionally, continue supporting the employee by offering more opportunities to help him/her develop.  


2. Training opportunities, both OJT and classroom
The people who work for you might not lose their cool over money and titles; however, nobody wants to be stagnant. You might need to be a creative advocate for your people through partnerships with other teams, departments and perhaps organizations. You might even need to work with higher-ups within your own organization to remove barriers; however, you must first decide that this approach is a priority and reflects your leadership values.


3. Opportunities to manage more responsibilities
You’re clear that you cannot give employees titles, but can you give them the exposure, skills, and experiences they want and need to move to the next level? Yes, you’re taking a risk that they might take their skills and leave; however, by not developing them, you risk that they’ll retire on the job and become your resident complainers. Even worse, if their skills become too outdated, you risk being stuck with someone who has no options to go anywhere else.  


4. Money (free parking, tuition reimbursement, retirement plan contributions, pre-tax purchase of transit passes, pay for breakroom refreshments and/or coffee, etc.)
You may not have money, but there’s a chance that you do have something of monetary value! Just because you don’t have lots of money, it doesn’t mean you should expect free. You need skin in the game, too. Think of curating an employee-friendly environment as an investment. Look for nearby organizations like gyms, yoga studios, dry cleaners, restaurants, etc., and negotiate discounts for your employees.

5. Meaningful coaching aimed at maximizing current role

Can you commit to setting aside time to develop your team, so speak life into them, to make them believe they are capable, to help refine their skills? This commitment also means that you’ll have to do more delegating, but isn’t that what a leader is supposed to do?

6. Grooming toward a particular role or competency to secure a long term relationship with the organization
This suggestion could actually be “5B”. The distinction is that a leader in suggestion 5 focuses on helping the employee excel in his or her role. This suggestion is about where the employee wants to go, particularly when the employee’s interest overlaps with a need that the organization has.  

7. Freedom and flexibility

For many traditional organizations, this one is tough because it likely goes against the organization’s culture; but if your culture isn’t helping you to attract or keep the employees that you need, it should be on the table.

8. Requests for input which builds esteem, influence within the organization and shows trust

Study after study shows that employees are more inclined to withhold information from leaders because they fear being accused of not knowing their place. Similarly, employees often believe that their input is useless because the decision-makers have usually made their decisions by the time they solicit employee input. Ask yourself how you can change that narrative with your team and raise the issue across your organization.


9. Regular, uninterrupted periods of time to work on important projects or recurring problems
You’d be surprised at how often people talk about not having time to focus. Balancing a daily tidal wave of emails, client and co-worker interruptions, and routine administrative tasks leave little time to focus. Meanwhile, some assignments require focus to be done well; however, when leaders don’t give employees the time to focus, they indirectly tell employees they don’t care or they don’t get it.


Overall, these suggestions require a shift in your perspective on leadership. They translate into seeing yourself as a good steward over the team more than seeing yourself through any other filter.  In essence, it’s servant leadership.

What might you add to this list? What has worked for you? What would you like to take a risk on to try?

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