How Richard Branson motivates his staff

Do you ever get the sense that your employees or team members aren’t performing to their full capacity?

Do you know what to do about it?

Many bosses try to solve this challenge by creating performance incentives. After all, this approach always works, right?

Wrong! (Mostly.)

The difference between incentives and motivation

Business incentives work by encouraging people to work in a certain way for a certain period. For example, when a salesperson reaches their 6-monthly target, they might receive a voucher for a weekend away or a cash bonus. They’ve achieved a short-term goal that benefits the company but does nothing to change how the person feels about their job. If they are not happy there, that kind of incentive is not going to stop them from changing jobs.

In the mid-20th century, psychologist Fredrick Herzberg studied the relationship between employee satisfaction and motivation. His Two Factor theory categorises the two key types of factors that influence employee motivation. He called these hygiene factors and motivation factors.

Hygiene factors include:

  • Salary
  • Status
  • Security
  • Company policies
  • Working conditions
  • Level of supervision
  • Relationships with managers and peers

Motivation factors include:

  • Responsibility
  • Achievement
  • Recognition
  • Personal growth
  • Advancement
  • The work itself

When hygiene factors are positive, they do not necessarily promote employee satisfaction. However, when they are negative, they can generate high levels of dissatisfaction. Simply adding some motivational factors will not eliminate dissatisfaction, though. If someone is not happy with their salary, giving them recognition for their work will not change how they feel.

Australian business author and sports psychologist Gavin Freeman agrees. He believes that business leaders can learn from the motivational strategies of elite athletes. They are motivated to succeed, not to avoid failure. Their motivation comes from a deep, intrinsic desire to improve their performance.

Agile management practices rely on intrinsic motivation. This approach had its origins in not-for-profit organisations where team members are often volunteers, driven by a clear and common purpose.

Today’s ‘king’ of agile leadership is Sir Richard Branson. He has incorporated many ground-breaking strategies to boost employee satisfaction and motivation within his Virgin empire. However, there is still place for ‘hygiene factor’ incentives, such as bonuses.

Let’s look at some of the many approaches Branson uses to keep his staff motivated.

Richard Branson puts employees first

For an organisation that prides itself on its exceptional customer service, it may surprise you that Virgin does not list customers as its top priority. That honour goes to its employees. Customers are its second priority followed by its shareholders in third place.

Branson explains the rationale behind this approach in an interview with Inc. president and editor-in-chief Eric Schurenberg (quoted in an article by Oscar Raymundo on

Branson believes that when employees are happy and are treated well, this will be echoed in the way they deal with customers. When customers have a good (or great) experience it reflects positively on the whole brand.

On the flip side, when employees are disgruntled for any reason, they are less likely to give the customer a positive experience. This can result in not only losing that customer but also anyone else they tell about their experience.

It is well known that if a customer or employee posts negative comments about a company on social media, their comments can go viral and place a big dent in the company’s reputation. This can lead to a downturn in sales which shareholders do not like.

As Branson says, when you put your employees first:

"Effectively, in the end, shareholders do well, the customers do better, and your staff remains happy.”

Richard Branson keeps his employees happy

Ok, we’ve established that. But how does he do it?

Ruby Lowe outlines The 5 Secrets of Motivation from The Virgin Group in her article for The Undercover Recruiter. They are a mix of the motivation and hygiene factors mentioned above.

1.     Flexibility. Virgin allow employees to work whenever and wherever they like. This empowers the employees and demonstrates the level of trust the company has in them. Learn more about the benefits of flexible working in The Mentor List article What today’s top companies are doing right.

2.     Annual leave. Virgin allow all employees to have unlimited annual leave days. This forms part of the flexible working approach but it is also a stand out benefit in its own right. It allows individuals to structure their work around important or sudden events in their personal life without fear of losing their job. When they introduced this policy, Virgin’s records immediately showed a corresponding increase in productivity, creativity and motivation amongst employees.

3.     Bonuses. Some employees are motivated by incentives and Virgin have acknowledged this by providing discretionary bonuses for high-performance employees in some situations.

In his article How to Motivate Your Employees, Ajaero Tony Martins notes that one way to increase motivation and productivity is to share financial wins with employees.
“When Virgin Atlantic won the libel suit it filed against British Airways, it shared the compensation paid by British Airways with all employees.”

4.     Training. Regular training sessions provide employees with an increased understanding of the Virgin brand and its vision. Training also shows employees that the company values their career development.

5.     Autonomy. Branson is passionate about placing trust in his workforce. Allowing employees to make important decisions and giving them the means and resources to do so effectively is a key aspect of agile management and of Branson’s philosophy.

Richard Branson inspires his employees

Carmine Gallo referred to a keynote speech that Branson gave to the SHRM 63rd Annual Conference in Las Vegas in 2011.

Gallo wrote in his article Richard Branson: The One Skill Leaders Need to Learn for
“… But I think there is one area where we can all agree with Branson—he believes companies who are successful in the area of employee motivation hire the type of leaders who “inspire” their teams.”

The article Inspiring Leadership. Richard Branson breaks the rules again! lists the many ways Branson is a ‘case study in modern leadership’. One of these is his ability to inspire others, especially his employees.

As an entrepreneur, Branson has proven that he is not afraid to take risks or make mistakes. He has a clear vision of what he wants to achieve and doesn’t mind breaking rules along the way. His enthusiasm for innovation and his unique business strategies clearly inspire his employees to be innovative and take risks, too.

Now it’s your turn

We are not all mini Richard Bransons with a budget the size of Virgin’s, but that doesn’t mean we can’t rethink our approach to employee motivation.

If you really want to boost motivation levels in your team, the first step to take is quite simple – spend time with them and find out what motivates them. Use the hygiene and motivation factor list above if it helps.

The second step is to show them you’ve taken them seriously by acting on their suggestions – even if it means changing your current strategies and structures. As Branson proves – when employees are happy, everyone is happy.

Call to action…

Want more tips on how to motivate your team? Then listen to Gavin Freeman’s podcast on The Mentor List today.

Gavin is a respected author and a fully registered psychologist with experience in both the sporting and corporate world. He has been a team psychologist for several Olympic teams, including the Australian archery team at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

While working with elite sports professionals, Gavin gained valuable insight into the benefits of both internal and external motivational factors. He could see that external (or hygienic) factors have some value but it is their high level of internal motivation that makes top athletes stand out.

Gavin has taken this knowledge to the corporate world and now shares his insights with business leaders wanting to know how to motivate others. You can hear some of Gavin’s tips today by sitting back and listening to his interview. Your employees will thank you.

Kick start your personal journey to success from the conversations David has with his inspirational guests on The Mentor List.

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