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Small Budgets - 21 June 2011

In the United States, over 115,000 households have fortunes exceeding $25 million. A recent and credible study of 120 of these millionaires by Boston College’s Centre on Wealth and Philanthropy revealed they’re deeply unhappy. These mega-rich people feel their money has contributed to serious anxieties about love, work, and family. The majority don’t even consider themselves to be financially secure. They want more. Much more.

One of the researchers commented that very wealthy people are the only folk who worry about money more than the poor. And their dilemmas get worse the richer they get. “They worry about losing it, they worry about how it’s invested, they worry about the effect it’s going to have,” said the researcher. “I’ve been in rooms and seen people stand up and say, ‘I’m Bob Kenny, and I’m rich.’ And then they burst into tears.”

Part of the problem is something called status anxiety. This was a term made famous by the British philosopher, Alain de Botton, in his book of the same name. At the core of status anxiety is comparison. We compare ourselves to others all the time – whether it’s in terms of looks or wealth or career – and for most of us, we get disappointed when we judge that we’re not as good, or as pretty, or as successful.

Status anxiety also occurs in the workplace in many ways. It occurs when people feel they don’t get promoted fast enough; when one team continually outperforms another; when a corporate culture consists of snobbery; when employees don’t feel valued; and so on.

It also occurs on the issue of small budgets. Managers without a lot of money to spend on their teams fall into a period of status anxiety. They fear they won’t be able to motivate their employees. They worry they won’t be able to recognise them appropriately. They’re concerned their teams won’t do as well as others that are showered in cash and gifts.

The truth, though, as evidenced in the study of the multi-millionaires, is that more money doesn’t lead to greater fulfillment. No amount of money is ever enough. And workplace research always reaches similar conclusions. When employees are provided with more money in the form of tangible rewards, there is only ever a short-term improvement in performance. It then drops off.

Money isn’t a bad thing; it just isn’t a long-term motivator.

If you acknowledge that status anxiety is making you resentful at not having enough of a budget to spend on your team, let it go. Let it go and recognise it’s the non-monetary stuff that has the greatest significance. It’s the little things you say and do every day that make the biggest difference in whether your employees are engaged or disengaged. These include:

  • Ask employees what non-monetary rewards they’d like to receive, and deliver them
  • Ask employees for one small thing that, if implemented, would make their day better
  • Identify each employee’s distinct motivator and tailor your approach for each person
  • Be happy, courteous and approachable: your mood and body language matter
  • Look out for status anxiety within your team, especially in ultra-competitive cultures

Sometimes status anxiety is a good thing. It fuels ambition and makes people believe that anything can be achieved. But it also has negative consequences. When we eventually discover the truth that not everything is achievable, we feel let down. We feel like failures. That’s why it’s great to know that in the pursuit of high employee engagement, the most meaningful actions don’t need to be budgeted.


To download complimentary e-books on employee engagement, retention, and recruitment (valued at over $100), please click here.



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