What should you pay to motivate your team?

It’s common perception that the more you pay employees, the happier they will be. It would follow that those happy employees would be the most motivated. High salary equals high performance, right? Not so fast. Motivational researchers have found that money can actually decrease motivation. Happy employees may be a joy to have around, but they don’t necessarily equate to high performers. Let’s look at why money alone won’t improve employee performance.

Is the highest salary the most motivational?

You may think that it’s necessary to pay your team members the highest salaries possible to ensure their loyalty and motivation. But here are my observations.

  • Several years ago, I worked with a dentist who gave her dental assistant cost of living increases every year for the 10-plus years she was in the office. When I met this dentist, she was paying the DA $90,000 a year! Was she the greatest DA who ever lived? Nope, she was moody and entitled. The next dentist who took over the practice fired her immediately.
  • After doing an analysis, another dentist discovered his hygienists’ salaries were 45% of their production. Did these hygienists feel appreciative and invested? Not so much. They staged a mutiny when they learned they would have to clock in and clock out.
  • A production-focused dentist created an elaborate, tiered bonus plan that rewarded employees for doing any task that led to increased production, including taking x-rays. What happened when this doctor wanted to introduce a new system? There was resentment because the team wouldn’t be paid extra to implement it.

Here is what I think of paying high salaries to get better performance: while money is a motivator, it is not the primary indicator of employee satisfaction, and there is little connection to long-term employee performance.


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You must give employees a sufficient salary so they feel rewarded and recognized for their contributions, and so they can live in the community where you practice. But simply giving out raises because you hope it will improve morale or performance will not work in the long term. The truth is, no amount of money will make unhappy employees happy. What you need to do is look at your practice’s culture and make sure you have a place where employees feel good about themselves, feel acknowledged for their work, and feel loyal to you as the leader.

Myths about motivation

If you want to blow up all your preconceived notions about money and rewards as good motivational tools, you should read what psychologists and social scientists have learned about motivation. Studies for 40 years have shown that bonus plans or reward programs actually decrease motivation and performance.

Here’s one reason why linking job tasks to incentives reduces motivation. When you tell an employee that you will pay extra for them to do something, you send the message that the job itself won’t provide any intrinsic reward. In fact, you imply that the task is going to be so unpleasant that you have to bribe them.

Another myth about motivation is the idea that you can motivate or “empower” employees. People are not empty vessels into which you can pour motivation and walk away. Your employees are already motivated, but they may or may not be motivated for the things you want them to do. So, your job isn’t to motivate them, but to uncover what they already like, desire, and appreciate, and link your practice needs to their preferences.

If money is not a motivator, what can you do?

Extrinsic rewards are never going to be as powerful as intrinsic rewards. Here’s an example: you want your hygienist, Esmeralda, to be more assertive and articulate when codiagnosing restorative treatment. You know that she is a people pleaser who likes to have friendly relationships with her patients. Instead of offering Esmeralda an incentive (bribe) to diagnose more treatment, you show her how much help she can provide patients when she recommends treatment.

Here’s what you might say. “You know Esmeralda, your patients really trust and like you. Imagine how much better they’ll feel when they hear recommended treatment from you instead of just me. I think they’re going to feel a lot more relaxed and positive about it. What do you think you can say to them so they’re more open to treatment?”

Think about what motivates you to get up in the morning. Does the idea of how much you’re going to add to your bank account really fill with you joy, or does what you get to do each day feel more rewarding? Let’s say you have a full mouth reconstruction. Is it the fee or the challenge that gets your mind working?

While the fee may add to your enthusiasm, it’s the project and the sense of challenge and accomplishment that truly motivates you. The same is true for your team. Yes, they’re in your practice because you pay them to be there. But what inspires them to work hard is not connected to their salaries, but to the meaning they make of their work.

Three things to make work more meaningful for your team

Setting goals and expectations should not be top down. Partner with your team through a formal goal-setting conversation where they can honestly assess themselves and match their desires for growth to the practice’s needs. My clients give each employee a self-assessment worksheet prior to the goal-setting conversation. This sheet asks employees to reflect on what they see as their job priorities, their greatest contributions, their performance, and their own performance goals. This shifts the performance appraisal process from a passive report on what the employee did right or wrong to a robust dialogue where the employee is engaged in self-reflection and goal setting.

Instead of giving employees empty praise such as, “Thanks, great job,” connect their efforts to results. “I overheard you talking with Mrs. Pittipat and because you were so patient and clear, she finally scheduled the treatment she’s been putting off for years.”

Share what makes your work meaningful for you. Every visionary leader and marketing expert knows that people will work hard if they connect to a larger mission. Do you want your dental assistants to view their jobs as sucking spit or as providing life-saving health care? Every volunteer program is staffed by people who work for free because they connect to the mission of the organization. Make your values and philosophy a guiding star that your staff can align themselves with.

Of course, pay your employees fairly and well. But if you want a motivated and cohesive team, use the power of intrinsic motivation more than the lure of external rewards.


Editor’s note: This article appeared in the March 2022 print edition of Dental Economics magazine. Dentists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.