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Motivating Your Staff

by David Stevens, MD, MA (Ethics)
Today's Christian Doctor - Fall 2008

Your success as a professional requires more than just knowledge, skill, and the wisdom to know when to apply them. You must also motivate the healthcare team you lead in the hospital, your practice, or your research lab.

Why? Because motivated staff provide compassionate care to your patients. Enthusiastic team members embrace change. Their contagious devotion and commitment make your job easier to do. They stimulate trust, encourage each other, and inspire you to do your work even better. A motivated team has cohesion that makes work a lot more fun.

God taught me about motivation long before I knew I would need that skill. For two summers during college, I sold family Bibles and other Christian books door to door for Southwestern.

Every year they recruit hundreds of college students, with no guarantee of pay, to work seventy-five or more hours a week in spite of doors slammed in their faces and dogs chasing them down the street. Not only do they recruit them, they motivate them to work harder than they ever have in their lives knocking on every door in some county far from home. Every Sunday afternoon, all of us would meet in a regional location for a sales meeting to reveal how well we had done the week before and to get motivated to go out again and work twelve to thirteen hours a day. I remember everyone yelling together, “I feel healthy! I feel happy! I feel terrific!” I learned a lot about self-discipline, determination, and attitude during those two summers.

Twelve years later, God used that training to help me motivate other people. It was 1983, and I was starting Tenwek’s Community Health Program. I had arrived as a new missionary two years earlier, the third doctor for 300,000 people. We only had seven to eight trained nursing staff. The hospital was averaging 185 percent occupancy for the year with two and sometimes three patients to a bed. One day during a malaria epidemic we had 485 inpatients in our 135-bed hospital! Days and nights were long as we took care of a never-ending stream of patients. A look at our statistics revealed that preventable diseases were the cause of half of our admissions and half the hospital deaths.

The light bulb went on! I could keep working sixteen-hour-days and every third night call for the rest of my career, but things wouldn’t change unless we figured how to motivate people to boil their water, immunize their children, build latrines, space their children, and adopt twenty or so other important health practices.

There was no way we could reach 300,000 people if we had to pay our “Health Helpers” to educate their communities. We would need to recruit volunteers and motivate them to continue to work three half days per week to help their communities for the rest of their lives.

Fast-forward twenty-five years. Today there are over 1,200 community health workers and they reach over a million people whose health has been radically changed. The vast majority of the people we recruited are still volunteering a quarter of a century later.

Okay, that was Africa. What about the U.S.? A few years ago, Christianity Today and the Christian Management Association honored CMDA as the best Christian workplace in the United States. We were picked because our staff love working at CMDA! They are motivated with many of the same principles I used in Africa with our volunteers. The techniques used may be a little different here, but the principles are the same and they will work for you. Focus on:

Unique Identity

Your team needs to know their distinctiveness. What is your unique mission? Why is it important? What does each individual contribute toward accomplishing your collective vision? How are they recognized and lauded for what they do?

Every person desires to invest their life in something significant. They long to know they are needed and are making a unique difference in an important endeavor. They want others to recognize their contribution. To accomplish these goals:

  • Inspire staff with your mission, vision, values, and goals.
  • Develop a slogan that encapsulates your vision.
  • Create a logo that communicates your mission and use it widely.
  • Develop a badge, uniform, or other visible means of setting your staff apart.
  • Give certificates for training completed or skills mastered.
  • Laud your staff for their accomplishments in front of significant others.


Good communication vertically and horizontally lets staff know what is going on. Poor communication breeds distrust or worse, apathy. Tell stories of how staff have made a difference in a patient’s life or done something extraordinary to do their job better with a new innovation or extra education. Share dreams, discuss problems, seek input, reveal your financial situation, or whatever else you can do to be transparent. This gives your staff a sense of ownership and importance.

  • Formally – start a staff newsletter, have regular meetings to keep everyone updated, send e-mails, have senior staff meetings and task them to pass on information. Have general staff meetings. Encourage questions.
  • Informally – seek input, share thank you notes, post pictures, tell success stories.


Staff are motivated when they know they are doing a good job. In med school they posted our grades using our ID numbers. The first thing I did was look at my grade. The second thing I did was to look to see how my grade compared to everyone else’s. How are individuals doing compared to the standards you have set for your practice, others doing jobs similar to theirs, national standards, or similar practices?

  • Formally – working with your staff, set measurable goals that everyone knows – waiting times for patients, lab turn around, call backs, etc. Let staff report how they are doing, and make the overall report known to all on a monthly basis. Compare them to national averages. Have small groups focus on how to improve their work to meet their goals.
  • Informally – give real time feedback when things go well or don’t. Laud individual staff in front of their significant others. Reward them - it is not what you give, but how you give and what it means. Communicate that you are going to be the best practice in your town, state, or even the country.


Competition is a great motivator. Create two types of opportunities – those that everyone can win by meeting a minimal level and those that recognize your top people. Rewards can be privileges (employee of the month parking space), financial rewards, prizes, or recognition. You might reward:

  • Fewest rejected insurance claims.
  • Best new patient information sheet.
  • Greatest suggestion this month.
  • Employee of the month.

Sense of Family

When I interview prospective employees, I tell them that we don’t hire new staff; we adopt people into our family. I constantly refer to “our CMDA family.” I believe God has entrusted each of my staff into my care to help them serve Him through their work. I want to disciple, counsel, encourage, train, and supervise them to be all that God has designed them to be. You might consider:

  • Parties – any excuse, fun, crazy . . . and get right in the middle of them. Take pictures that they can share with others. You want to make memories. CMDA’s staff parties are legendary!
  • Celebrate – accomplishments, birthdays, new babies, weddings.
  • Show concern – deaths, illnesses, other crises.
  • Surprise them – let staff off early, invite them to your home, take them out for lunch in small groups to get to know them better.

There are many more techniques than this short article allows me to share. Be creative. Brainstorm things you can do for each principle. Last year we had a community garden on CMDA’s property, where everyone could garden together in the evening or weekends. Recently, we had a CMDA yard sale where staff had fun selling their junk in our parking lot. There was a lot of laughter and we made some good memories. When the movie “Amazing Grace” came out I surprised the staff, shut the office, rented a bus, and took them all to the movie and for ice cream sundaes afterward. Human trafficking is one of CMDA’s issues, so it was inspirational, educational, and family fun!

I challenge you to motivate for success. You will have better staff retention, higher work output, better served patients, and a lot more fun at work every day!


DAVID STEVENS, MD, MA (Ethics), serves as the Chief Executive Officer for CMDA. From 1981 to 1991, he served as a missionary doctor in Kenya helping to transform Tenwek Hospital into one of the premier mission healthcare facilities in the world. Subsequently, he served as the Director of World Medical Mission, the medical arm of Samaritan’s Purse. As a leading spokesman for Christian healthcare professionals, Dr. Stevens has conducted hundreds of television, radio and print media interviews. He holds degrees from Asbury University, is an AOA graduate University of Louisville School of Medicine and is board certified in family practice.

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