Motivating the Unmotivated

April 25th, 2013

How do you motivate unmotivated employees?

In my Intelligent Coaching class, one of the opening activities is to have participants write down questions they would like to have answered. One of the questions frequently mentioned is, “how do I motivate the unmotivated?”

My first response is always, “great question.” And I mean it. Firstly, by asking this question, I know the leader understands one of his/her responsibilities is to engage, inspire, and motivate. Secondly, by asking this question, I know the leader is tuned in enough to his/her team to know who appears motivated and who doesn’t. Finally, by asking this question, I know the leader is actively seeking solutions – not just criticizing, condemning, and complaining.

So, based on what we know about how the brain learns and performs best, here are a few practical tips for those leaders or teammates faced with getting top performance from seemingly unmotivated employees and colleagues.


Build on strengths

We know it takes less energy to do what we enjoy.

Additionally, the prefrontal cortex, the critical part of our brain for top performance, “lights up” when we are engaged in those activities that build on our strengths.

We tend to be a very deficit-focused society. From early childhood, we have people tested and then seek ways to close the gaps. This paradigm continues in our workplaces today. We complete employee reviews and have discussions on how to improve in the areas where we are weak.

How about if we tested children and found out what their strengths were and built on those throughout their lifetime? This is not to say we shouldn’t improve in our weak areas, it’s simply suggesting we turn the spotlight from closing gaps to highlighting strengths.

If that were our paradigm growing up, we might translate that mentality in the workplace. How would that subtle shift in thinking make a difference in how we hire, how we develop, and how we place people in particular jobs?

When we tap into the strengths of employees and allow them to do more of what they are naturally adept at, people become more motivated.


Put the right people in the right place

This starts with the hiring process. I am an advocate of behavioral interviewing, and using an interview process that begins with a thorough analysis of the needs of the job and then designing questions based on those results. Many organizations spend a great deal of time improving their performance management process, which is a worthwhile effort and investment of money. However, if the selection process is broken, leaders and employees will always face challenges that could have been prevented.

For those who don’t have the luxury of turning back the clock to the hiring process of their unmotivated employees, the leader can identify strengths, interests, skills, aspirations of the employee. Then, take a close look at the job they are currently in and the way in which they are currently performing their job.

Perhaps the problem is the employees are in the wrong job.

They are often in a position, the requirements of which are incompatible with their strengths. They are doing less of what they enjoy and what they are good at and more of what they don’t enjoy or find satisfaction with.

An example from a recent class comes from one participant who was in a customer service position and then transferred to a position where she had minimal customer service. As she reflected on our conversation about putting the right people in the right job, she exclaimed, “so that’s why I felt like I came alive again.” She didn’t like customer service. Easy fix.


Reward the positive

Most of us have heard the compliment to criticism ration 3:1 for a positive outcome. That means three sincere, authentic compliments to every criticism.

As leaders, we have the opportunity to see and develop the potential in the people around us.

We best do that by rewarding the good more – or at least as much as – reprimanding the bad.

As goals are accomplished, projects completed, or right behaviors displayed, take time to celebrate and appreciate.

The Brain-Based Bottom Line

Unmotivated employees are oftentimes people who are not in the right job or have little opportunity to do what they do best at work.

To increase the likelihood of having motivated employees:

• Identify the strengths of each employee
• Put the right people in the right jobs – jobs that highlight their strengths
• Reward the positive

Leave a Reply