When it comes to incentives, what managers believe their employees want and what employees actually want are often different.

Ask managers to name the best reward they can offer their people and most will likely say that it’s money. Yet research shows that in reality, employees rank pay far lower than managers expect. While money continues to be important for attracting and retaining good people, it is not necessarily the factor that inspires them to go the extra mile.

So if employees are being paid fairly and already have reasonable benefits, what else do they want? What will keep them engaged and loyal to the company for the long-term? Fortunately for managers, finding out is as easy as asking.

One of the natural advantages of a small business is that there are fewer layers of management separating the company’s CEO and its employees, which means business owners have more opportunities to learn what is most important to their people. Secondly, it means you’ve got a head start on incentives because your employees likely have a sense of belonging, if not ownership.

Recognition, respect and rewards outside of a regular paycheck consistently rise to the top of the list of what keeps employees happy. Among the ways their bosses can deliver:

    • Praise tied in to specific accomplishments. In order to make someone feel special, be specific about why they are being recognized. Instead of making a sweeping generalization about the team’s efforts, make a point of singling out a job done exceptionally well and giving that person praise. Studies show that individual signs of appreciation give employees a sense of worth, and that goes a long way in job satisfaction.

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    • Take a genuine interest in their future. Employees who believe their manager cares about their career path tend to have better attitudes at work. Take the time to learn about their personal goals and be helpful in offering additional education, training and other opportunities to advance.

    • Listen to what they have to say. Everyone appreciates a chance to be heard, but they always remember those who have truly listened. Go to employees for ideas on how to improve business practices and processes and get their feedback on just about anything else you want to bounce around. By tuning out the day-to-day distraction and tuning in to your people, you will learn things about your own company that you never imagined.

    • Make sure they have lives outside the office. Show that you recognize your employees are whole people who balance work and life on a daily basis. Offer them such perks as flex time, telecommuting, sick days, family-included company events and summer hours. Also, consider paid volunteer time, wellness benefits, green initiatives and other extras that support their values and interests.

    • Customize rewards. Learn what types of acknowledgement your people value. This could be in the form of a commemorative plaque, public recognition in the company newsletter or bulletin board, time off, tickets to sporting or cultural events, free monthly lunches or a well-stocked staff kitchen (Trust me, NEVER underestimate they value of providing free food as a motivator!). Once you learn what employees want, offer it in a way that is truly meaningful to them.

By learning what motivates your people, you can begin to invest in genuine forms of recognition and rewards that will make them feel appreciated. This investment will help reduce turnover, boost loyalty, and have a positive effect on your company’s morale.