What Motivates Workers at Small Firms?

They want to feel their ideas and efforts materially contribute to the success of their employers.

Employees at small companies are motivated by different things than their counterparts at large organizations. Those motivations affect their expectations, how they are trained, and how thoroughly they engage with the company.

Those differences can be disconcerting for employers eager to increase employee engagement. According to a recent Dale Carnegie Training employee engagement survey, employers assume their workers are motivated most by promotions and raises—things that are difficult for many small companies to provide. But that’s not necessarily the case.

While those incentives are welcome, employees at firms with headcounts of less than 1,000 want most to know their contributions make a difference, according to the Dale Carnegie Training survey. They want to feel their ideas and efforts materially contribute to the success of their employers. 

They expect to do their jobs with limited oversight; to get help when they need it; and to have open, honest, two-way communication with management, as well as training opportunities and access to information when they need it. Work-life balance is important, too. And they want to perform interesting work and feel connected to the company.

These expectations all lead to individual empowerment and, thus, to engagement. At small firms especially, knowing their expertise is valued is even more important than advancement or raises.

These things are important at large corporations, too. There, however, employees often are more focused on their place within the organizational hierarchy as measured by advancements and raises.

At large companies, engagement is directly linked to employees’ relationships with their immediate supervisors and how they feel about the leadership, according to a previous Dale Carnegie Training employee engagement survey of large organizations. Honing that point, an O.C. Tanner white paper on incentives says that 79 percent of employees who leave their organizations do so because of their supervisors, not because of the company itself.

Some of the differences between motivators at small and large organizations stem from the fact that smaller firms attract employees with different aspirations than those of large firms, explains George Athan, CEO, MindStorm Strategic Consulting. “People go to small companies to be part of something that will grow. They like the flexibility, too. The more they are involved in decision- making, the more they feel it’s their mini-company.”

That breeds a certain self-reliance. Because the staff is small, employees at small organizations must find solutions themselves, without the luxury of conferring with in-house experts for insights to address challenges. At small companies, they, themselves, are the experts.

They’re not entirely alone, though. “Being small gives folks a chance to get more exposure to all facets of the company,” says Ashley White, director of Human Resources at research firm APCQ, which has fewer than 200 employees. “It’s a bit like living in a small fish bowl,” where everyone knows what is happening and has experience in multiple areas.

In small companies, “learning takes on a whole new meaning,” White says. “APQC, for example, focuses on creating specific learning opportunities for staff, but a lot of what’s learned happens organically.”

At 300-employee software development firm TechSmith, “our employees know their jobs are very important to the success of the company,” says Danny Wittenborn, practice manager, User Experience. “We depend on our managers, but it’s easy to see where we fit into the company’s strategy.”

Organizational size also affects recruiting. “I have to hire driven, naturally engaged folks,” White says. “Then my job is to keep them that way. If I have to train them to be engaged, it will never happen.”

Alternately, people who gravitate toward large organizations tend to like structure, Athan says. They strive to advance. They know their successes or failures in their leadership roles, even during training, will be reported to their superiors. “They’re used to being ranked, and that affects how they like information delivered. Because they know training results are sent to their bosses, they’re more engaged.”

The prestige of large firms reflects on their employees, too, which can enhance engagement. As Wittenborn, who was a member of the L&D team at 180,000-employee Boeing before joining TechSmith, says, “the pride of working for a large company such as Boeing carries a lot of weight for engagement.”

Employees at small firms, he says, “typically have to explain the firm and what it does to their family and friends.” That can become tedious. (The director of one small trade association eventually skipped explanations, and instead told social acquaintances it was a front for the CIA.)

During training, Athan finds employees at small companies more engaged “when they feel they’re part of the process. They take ownership, even if only a bit. They become excited about the possibilities this training will bring.”

The challenge is getting the right training, when it’s needed. As Wittenborn says, “Training depends on you and your team identifying what training is needed and how to get it. Often, it’s just-in-time and less strategically planned than at large firms.” 

At APQC, for example, “we have to be creative and have more homegrown solutions,” White says. “I have to sell past the challenges and highlight why something is good.” Because many companies lack L&D departments, training may be delivered by consultants or online services. After those formal training sessions, Athan stresses, companies should duplicate the training in-house until employees routinely demonstrate the necessary skills in their jobs. For example, he suggests “creating a weekly training session that duplicates the consultant’s training. Include workbooks and exercises. Repetition is what makes training work.”

Repetition is important for large firms, too. Annual training alone is inadequate because people need reinforcement. “One of the challenges for large firms is that they often aren’t getting employee buy-in from the beginning,” Athan says. Employees are overwhelmed with e-mail and meetings. “They view training as just another meeting, but are more engaged when you compare their performance to others’,” Athan says. They’re interested in how they fit in the corporate structure and culture, which they see as a track to more perks.

Athan recommends reminding them “…that training helps them get what they want—promotions, raises, more vacation time, etc.—because it helps them perform better and makes them more valuable to the company. Link training to results.”

Regardless of the firm’s size, employees want training that has an immediate impact on what they’re doing today, Wittenborn says. “They want fast access to answers.”

Particularly at small firms, “many people are used to being involved in decisions,” Wittenborn says. As the company grows, you can’t continue to involve everyone. You can keep them informed, however.

Open, honest communication is one of the key motivators of employees at small companies, according to the Dale Carnegie Training study.

“At TechSmith,” Wittenborn says, “we have weekly Monday morning meetings to update everyone in the company at a high level about what we’re working on and why. We try to be open and clear about the company’s direction, while filtering the appropriate level of communication and getting employee opinions to the right people.”

Regular, honest communication from management helps employees at all organizations feel connected. It’s particularly important at small companies, where people expect to make significant contributions to company success. Communication is a small company’s secret weapon for boosting engagement.

Key Motivators

  • Open, honest communication with management
  • Knowing their contributions make a difference to the company’s success and their expertise is valued
  • Ability to do their jobs with limited oversight
  • Getting help when they need it
  • Training opportunities
  • Access to information when they need it
  • Work-life balance
  • Opportunity to perform interesting work
  • Feeling connected to the company