Most leaders are comfortable and confident with employee motivation when they can offer attractive career incentives. But it is more of a challenge to keep workers engaged and motivated to excel when a promotion or raise is not an option. So, what can you do to retain your top performers at a time of great talent shortage and resignations, especially with a potential recession on the horizon?

It’s not always feasible to offer every worthy employee a promotion. But companies can hold onto their talent through strategic leadership. The solution for smart leaders is to develop interim strategies to keep valued workers engaged and interested with different types of motivators. And that starts with an honest evaluation of individual needs and expectations that help pave the way for growth and future promotion.

This article looks at motivation techniques for employees, particularly star performers, to keep them happy and engaged in their current role. It explores strategies that don’t rely on pay raises or promotions to retain your rising talent. These must-have tactics will help prepare you to navigate a potential recession and avoid leadership pipeline congestion. But first, we should review why many top performers quit.

Failure in Employee Motivation: Why Your Top Performers Are Quitting

The new, post-pandemic, American workplace is people-focused. Yet many organizations continue to struggle with how to keep employees motivated. As a leader, you’re in search of solutions to recruiting and retainment problems without relying on assumptions or guesswork.

There are some common underlying reasons why top performers lose engagement and seek an exit from the organization. However, it’s only possible to prevent this exit by understanding the why. Part of the reason and difficulty parsing the problem is generational. The Great Resignation illustrated very strongly that younger generations are more likely to quit.

The chart below shows the percentage of US workers who consider quitting by generation.

Data source: Amdocs

The seven leading reasons star performers leave their current roles are:

  1. Employees feel undervalued and unappreciated
  2. Lack of clear growth opportunities
  3. Overwork and continual burnout
  4. Result of effort is unclear or unrecognized
  5. Bored and unchallenged in current role
  6. Lack of constructive feedback, inability to improve
  7. Poor management, toxic work culture
For a deeper dive into workforce hopes and fears see PWC’s 2022 Global Workforce Hopes and Fears Survey.

More Job Vacancies than Workers to Fill Them

By all estimates, 2023 and beyond will continue to be a jobseeker’s market. The phenomenon of the Big Quit means there are many more open positions than active job seekers to fill them. Also, US employee retention rates have never been lower, which is bad news for organizations.

People are your organization’s greatest asset, but there is fierce rivalry for the top employees. And the more talented the candidates and the amount of open positions available, the harder it is to attract and retain them. So, your organization must stand above to keep its best workers. The tips below identify why workers leave jobs and what you can do to address the risk and reduce its impact.

#1 Appreciate Your Top Talent

There are good reasons to show appreciation for your star performers.. They are in high demand because of their performance, but also their great attitude and growth mindset. These workers have strong communication skills, distinct abilities, and the confidence to aim high. And, yes, they like for them and their work to be appreciated.

In the US, 79% of employees who quit their jobs say it was due to a lack of appreciation from employers. A recent study by technology firm WorkHuman found 70% of workers are considering leaving their job. Other research revealed that US employers spend around $2.9M each day ($1.1B per year) looking for replacement workers [1] [2] [3].

Good Leaders Express Appreciation

Good leaders continually show appreciation for their high-performance employees. It’s especially critical when there are no raise or promotion opportunities. So, the effectiveness of your top talent depends on how well you engage and incentivize them. But in all cases, it should be genuine, timely, specific, and often public. 

Recognition strategies that result in better engagement and job satisfaction include:

  • Acknowledge accomplishments timely
  • Offer training opportunities
  • Create a rewards system, e.g., PTO, flexible working, gift cards, etc.
  • Public or private recognition

Happy employees work well and stay with companies longer than aggrieved workers. It’s why job satisfaction now matters more than being well-remunerated among the younger workforce.

#2 Offer Growth Opportunities to Motivate Employees

Not every talented worker is interested in pursuing a promotion, even if a role in your pipeline is available. But they do expect their employer to offer opportunities to grow and learn valuable skills to improve their current performance and prepare for future career advancement.

Create Stretch Goals for High Performers

Today’s workforce is open to embracing growth opportunities beyond a typocal promotion or salary raise. Have open and frank discussions with your talented workers about their needs and aspirations. Proactive listening boosts employee engagement and enhances job satisfaction. 

Listening also helps leaders tailor extra tasks and projects to keep top performers engaged and challenged. Training through in-house mentoring or course enrollment is another way to offer growth opportunities by helping talent skill up and prepare for future opportunities.

Your star performers will bore quickly if their role becomes tedious and stops challenging them enough. Top performers are quick learners, fast workers, and make only a small allowance for mundane, repetitive work before they start seeking a new challenge elsewhere.

Motivating Employees: Be Careful What You Promise

Employers often stretch role responsibilities, pay, and growth opportunities in job ads to attract better candidates. It’s a costly error that often results in a revolving door of talent when an employee does not see those promises materialize. It’s an expensive gamble, as the cost of acquiring and training new talent ranges from 150-200% the annual salary of a lost employee [4].

Here is a breakdown of the high costs associated with valued employee turnover:

  1. Recruitment costs, e.g., advertising, interviewing, screening, hiring
  2. Onboarding costs
  3. Lost productivity while the new worker gets up to speed
  4. Less engagement, lower morale, and cultural impact on team from the disruption
  5. Errors in customer/client service caused by inexperience
  6. Ongoing training and education costs

You may feel desperate for quality talent amid the insane competition and labor shortage triggered by the Great Resignation. But remember, creating ads that over-promise and under-deliver will increase turnover and harm your reputation as an employer. And that weakens your talent pool and keeps recruitment costs sky-high. The solution is to treat and respect workers well so that they don’t want to leave.

Showing Respect Gains Respect

The right way to treat employees is through honesty and transparency. It’s a simple approach that shows you value and respect your workers and teams. The best managers and supervisors strive to keep their word and lead by example. They listen to team members while offering encouragement and constructive feedback. 

There are many ways to demonstrate respect for workers without a pay increase or role advancement. But in every case, the idea is to make the employee feel a part of—not apart from—the bigger picture.

The six transformative benefits of fair treatment and worker respect are: 

  1. An equitable workplace environment
  2. Enhanced job satisfaction
  3. Less workplace stress
  4. Increased employee engagement
  5. Improved knowledge sharing
  6. Boost to productivity and the bottom line

Everyone wins when companies and their leadership treat employees with respect and dignity. 

#3 Motivate Employees: Make Life Easier for Star Performers

In the ideal workplace, top talent is naturally motivated and strives to excel. As a result, they work more and harder than their peers. But ambitious, hardworking talent can only do so much. And leaders with overly high demands and unrealistic expectations risk creating a feedback loop of burnout and undervaluation of your top performers.

Even overachievers have their limitations. So be careful not to push high performers past their tipping point, where expectations become unrealistic goals. That’s when workers get disgruntled and lose motivation. They begin to feel put upon, undervalued, and unappreciated—then quit. 

Keep High Achievers in the State of Flow

No two talented workers share the same abilities and skills. Leaders who know their employees well can use the flow state model to manage workloads more effectively. 


The idea is to delegate challenging tasks to keep the worker engaged. But they should not be so difficult or numerous that they become unrealistic goals. In other words, the challenge should match the employee’s ability level to get them into the right zone. However, getting the difficult/ability ratio wrong can lead to laziness and boredom or stress and anxiety.

Another way to keep top performers happy is to withdraw less challenging and engaging work from their schedule and delegate it to others. Doing this removes the tedious aspects of a task and allows them to focus more on what they’re good at and in line with their talents.

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#4 Motivate Employees with Recognition

No-cost recognition helps keep star performers engaged and motivated. Acknowledgment makes workers feel they and their work are valued. Studies show that positive feedback is a critical factor in driving workplace productivity. Recognition also improves employee engagement and worker retention. It also reduces burnout because appreciation strengthens the cultural bonds between work and worker [5].

According to career experts ZIPPA, 29% of workers feel they haven’t received any form of positive recognition in over a year. Yet, 37% of workers say that recognition is the best thing an employer can do to motivate employees to become more productive.

Data Source: ZIPPIA

Public Vs. Private Recognition—How to Choose the Right Employee Motivation?

When you praise employees, it affects how they perceive their value within the workplace. Positive recognition encourages engagement and improves productivity. It also enhances customer relations and reduces employee turnover.

Not all workers enjoy the limelight and may prefer private recognition over public acknowledgment. There may be other occasions where private praise is more apt. But in general, public recognition has the most impact. It shows all employees that the company values them, which helps foster a positive workplace culture.

This table illustrates examples of public and private recognition strategies.

Public Praise ExamplesPrivate Praise Examples
Public recognition on digital platforms
Honoring at annual events/awards
Shout-outs on social media
Shout-outs in company newsletters
Express appreciation at team meetings
Applaud personal/team achievements
Handwritten letters/thank you notes
Personal email
Person-to-person acknowledgment
A token of appreciation, e.g., gift cards
In-house coaching to develop skills
Paid time off for a job well done

The wrong type of recognition can backfire, so appreciation strategies need careful thought. Consider your relationship with workers, individual personalities, and team dynamics before choosing recognition strategies.

Informal Interactions Foster Employee Motivation

Informal recognition goes a long way to keep workers engaged and motivate employees. And recognition can be more than an announcement or personal thank you. Consider turning your recognition into a tangible reward. 

Some examples are group lunches, employee of the month honors, fun team-building events, and other employee bonding activities. Step-back events are an opportunity to unwind and spend quality time with valued workers. Presenting small, unexpected employee rewards to motivate star performers is a great incentive. You can express your gratitude in all manner of creative ways. Some examples are gift cards, lunch on the company, and paid time off (PTO) rewards.

#5 Motivate Employees by Preventing Boredom

The recruiting procedure should provide you insight on what work the candidate is passionate about and interested in doing. This process helps you pick the best strategy to engage newly employed workers. But if you don’t offer new challenges to those who like to test their abilities, they get bored and eventually quit. Thus, the hire will be short-lived if you can’t follow through on the pledges made in the job ad. So, attracting top talent is of little use if you can’t retain them.

The solution is to target workers in your job ads. If there are no opportunities for growth or promotion, don’t advertise them. Honest advertising is the only way to attract and hold onto the right people for the advertised position.

Monotony and Top Performers Don’t Mix

The danger of employing overly-talented people for tedious work is less attention to detail and more potential for mistakes. And then there’s the lost cost of hiring once they quit. So identifying a role’s ease or difficulty helps you tailor job ads that attract the right type and quality of talent for the position. Use the flow model above to prevent advertising tedious jobs to high achievers. This will help you succeed by targeting the most suitable candidates for the vacancy. 

#6 Motivate Employees with Constructive Feedback

Star performers require and thrive on constructive feedback in the workplace to help them hone their craft. It is what makes your best employees highly coachable. While casual praise is motivating, constructive feedback goes deeper by providing concrete directions for how an employee can improve, which is why ambitious workers prefer it. Positive evaluation offers detailed analysis and advice on what they can do to be more effective, efficient, and excel in their role.

Constructive criticism also has a place, but too much can lower morale, dampen spirits, and drive workers away. In contrast, positive feedback is less critical and focuses more on problem-solving. And that results in raised spirits that inspire employees to excel.

The Productive Way to Criticize Overachievers

Overachievers who know their worth can struggle with constructive criticism. But if it’s necessary, it needs saying. Managers should be mindful of warning signs that, when ignored, may result in less achievement and desire to excel.

The self-destructive behaviors of an overachiever often include setting unrealistic goals, taking unnecessary risks, and working insane hours. These behaviors can lead to burnout, depression, and an unhealthy obsession with speed. They may also manifest into an intolerance for average-achieving coworkers.

Maintain a Praise-to-Criticism Ratio

It’s vital to follow up on all constructive criticisms with positive explanations and expert guidance. Too much criticism can hinder efforts to help the highflyer develop healthier habits needed to steer them on the right path. The optimal praise-to-criticism ratio is five positive comments for every negative one.

Examples of constructive criticism strategies to manage high achievers include:

  • Address self-destructive behaviors early on
  • Help them view mistakes as learning opportunities rather than failures
  • Show how to become a better team player to bridge divides with coworkers
  • Enforce work breaks and vacations where necessary
  • Keep them engaged in decision-making processes
  • Offer emotional support where appropriate
  • Follow through on your support and guidance

Overachievers tend to be hard on themselves when things don’t go as planned. But you can break this negative mindset with helpful insight and positive leadership. Your goal is to keep them happy, focused, and working for you long-term.

Two-way Feedback Influences Trust and Engagement

Conversations are more supportive than lectures. Two-way feedback is one of the most effective ways to motivate workers. That includes one-to-one sessions and team meetings. Asking open-ended questions is a proven method for instigating positive dialog. It matters as two-way communication fosters the free flow of ideas. And that, in turn, helps build trust and improve workplace morale and retention rates.

Two-way Feedback, Reciprocal Benefits

Two-way feedback helps employees recognize and pursue paths and training opportunities that are right for them. It is a much better approach than one-way feedback for preparing talented workers for new roles or future promotions. In addition, it develops a mutual understanding that enhances relationships between all parties. 

Free-flowing conversations primarily center around the employee. But there’s also an upshot for the sender. That’s because open dialogue inevitably helps the mentor better understand how they’re doing as leaders and improve their perspective on the team and workflow’s performance including challenges and opportunities for improvement.

Preparing for a Two-Way Feedback Session

Two-way discussions are less formal, but the most constructive sessions work better with preparation. For example: 

  • How can you help the reviewee have a more fulfilling work experience?
  • How can you recognize and reward contributions?
  • What tips, ideas, processes, and coaching can your key players offer?
  • How can talented employees help uplift the rest of the team/department?

Healthy work relationships create conversations that are motivational and engaging. By talking to workers instead of talking at them boosts trust in leadership. And the consequence of that has a positive impact on overall company performance. 

#7 Foster a Positive Workplace Culture

Employees across all ranks will seek new opportunities if they feel uncomfortable in the work environment. A Glassdoor survey showed that the appeal of financial incentives and benefits have been dropping year on year. In fact, today’s workers value a positive company culture and mission over higher salaries and additional perks. Researchers found that 77% of adults now review a company’s culture before applying for jobs [6] [7].

Why the Employee Motivation Paradigm Shift?

The pandemic restrictions gave workers time to reflect on the world of work. It also escalated the so-called Great Resignation. But there is no single cause for this paradigm shift or change in thinking. Also, attitudes and outlooks differ between generational cohorts. But most workers now recognize the relentless increase in workplace pressures, poor employee treatment, low engagement, and subsequent burnout on themselves and peers.

The many voluntary resignations and demand for skilled labor have resulted in a job seekers market. And the shrinking talent pool has caused relentless competition between organizations chasing the same people. So, companies must stay ahead of the curve to attract and retain the best workers. That means a change in recruitment strategies that look beyond pay and benefits. 

It’s true; salary and titles alone will no longer entice and hold on to the new American worker. Instead, recruiters must also focus on promoting a positive work culture, work-life balance, flexibility, and other worker demands.

Positive Cultures Attract, Retain, and Motivate Employees

A successful post-pandemic workplace is more people-focused than work-focused. Culture alignment embraces all the values, expectations, and best practices needed to help your organization and workers thrive. Companies that cultivate and foster positive cultures motivate employees and improve retention rates.

Enhance Cultures with Listening

Hearing what others say helps create resilient, trusting relationships within organizations. Moreover, reciprocated listening encourages individual and team creativity and the sharing of new ideas. For these reasons, all successful companies foster a culture of active listening. And the best listening cultures start at the top. They then cascade down through the ranks of an organization and out to the clients and customers. 

Cultural alignment varies between sectors and organizations. However, all successful company cultures have five things in common.

  1. Recognition, i.e., showing appreciation to steer behavioral change
  2. Employees recognize what’s required of them and what they’re working toward
  3. Live by company values. i.e., guiding principles & fundamental beliefs 
  4. Listening cultures create environments of trust and emotional safety
  5. Focus recruiting on those who align with the organization’s culture

You may need to change or modify your culture to align it with the post-pandemic era. But first, you must know how to become the new American workplace. You need to understand why it is happening and how it will affect your business going forward. Depending on your industry, it may be necessary to incorporate new cultural elements while retiring others that are no longer as important to American workers. 

This table shows five cultural elements that are in transition according to research from California Management Review (CMR) [8].

Cultural Elements EmphasizedCultural Elements De-emphasized
1.        Flexibility
2.        Transparency
3.        Supportiveness
4.        Decisiveness
5.        Confronting conflict
1.        Customer orientation
2.        Individualism
3.        Detail orientation
4.        Results orientation
5.        Collaboration

Academic research over recent decades shows strategically relevant cultures boost organizational operations, individual performance, well-being, and worker retention. A 2021 study from a US employee recognition company found organizations with healthy cultures were 16 times more likely to retain Gen Z employees.

The Transformation of Workplace Cultures

Every successful business knows that strong organizational cultures attract and retain talented workers. Unlike in the past, the new American worker is no longer willing to stay in a job they find unfulfilling. Likewise, they won’t work for employers that disrespect the workforce or have unethical practices. For these reasons, many US companies are transforming their cultures.

We often see the term job hopper used to describe the younger generations of workers. But most of them are only looking for companies and cultures that match their values. Millennials and Gen Z have seen the effects of unhealthy workplace trends with their parents, and they want none of it.

Cultural change is rarely straightforward. But organizations that successfully transform their company cultures stand out from rivals and attract the best talent. It’s not a choice but a survival strategy for any organization serious about attracting and retaining the best workers.

Employee Motivation Closing Comments

Attracting new talent is futile unless you can hold onto them. To achieve that, you must have effective leadership and retention strategies. For example, worker engagement, two-way feedback, and, most important of all, follow through. In addition, retention policies must foster an inclusive, modern culture. And they should also offer growth opportunities for your high achievers.

Attractive salaries and benefits will always hold significant sway with job seekers, but worker priorities are in transition. Post-pandemic workers now place recognition, autonomy, culture, and inspiration above pay and promotion opportunities when it comes to making employment decisions. This shift is pushing many companies to readdress their employer image, employment strategies, and cultures to motivate and retain key workers.

Remember, worker priorities are in transition. Of course, attractive salaries and benefits will always hold significant sway with job seekers and existing staff. But the post-pandemic worker now often places recognition, autonomy, culture, and inspiration above pay and promotion opportunities when making decisions about their work situation.

These shifts are forcing many companies to readdress their employer image, employment strategies, and cultures to motivate and retain key workers.

Effective Employee Development for Early-to-Mid-Career Leaders

Between discussion of a potential recession and top talent looking for greener pastures, it’s never been more important to prepare your early-to-mid-career leaders with our leadership development programming. Our skills-based leadership will prepare your leaders to take on their next role and galvanize your leadership pipeline to ensure organizational and operational stability.

Prepare Your Young Leaders to Step Up and Weather Any Storm

  6. https://www.glassdoor/mission-culture-survey/