Salary increases, bonuses, and incentives are very tight and very scarce in today’s economy. That makes strong, inspirational leadership even more critical. To manage is to attempt to “motivate” people by pushing them with financial and other inducements. To lead is to focus on drawing out – even to liberate – people’s intrinsic motivation.

A McKinsey Quarterly survey sent to me recently reinforces the timeliness – and timelessness – of using recognition, celebration, and appreciation to energize and mobilize performance in these tough times. Go to Motivating people: Getting beyond money to see how “The economic slump offers business leaders a chance to more effectively reward talented employees by emphasizing nonfinancial motivators rather than bonuses.”

If you really want your perspective on this issue twisted in a whole new direction, read Alfie Kohn’s well researched and reasoned book, Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. Alfie makes important points about the misuse of financial “motivation:”

“….good management, like good teaching, is a matter of solving problems and helping people do their best. This takes time and effort and thought and patience and talent. Dangling a bonus in front of employees does not. In many workplaces, incentive plans are used as a substitute for management: pay is made contingent on performance and everything else is left to take care of itself… if it does makes sense to measure the effectiveness of rewards on the basis of whether they produce lasting change, the research suggests that they fail miserably.”

Alfie’s great at pointing out the problem, but not so good at suggesting alternative approaches. I’ve tried to provide a menu of options and leadership approaches in a series of articles and book excerpts on Recognition, Celebration, and Appreciation.

Inspiring higher performance during challenging times is one of those “soft” skills that is really hard to do. That’s why it’s so rare – and so effective when done well.