How to deal with demotivated employees

Written by
Changeboard Team

01 Sep 2014

01 Sep 2014 • by Changeboard Team

The effects of an unmotivated employee

Periodically, I dust off the classic western, The Magnificent Seven, and indulge in some escapism. The lead character, Chris, caused me to think about employee motivation recently. His team has different technical abilities, hang ups and preferences. Chris engages them in a dangerous mission that pays very little. He creates the conditions that motivate each individual and the whole team succeeds.

In business, the effects from unmotivated employees are easy to identify. The person’s performance is the obvious one, but quickly we can follow that with the negative impacts on their colleagues and the lowering of team Results.

How can leaders motivate employees?

So, what do able leaders do to manage demotivated employees? Firstly, they remember that they can’t motivate anyone to do anything. Instead, they create the conditions for people to motivate themselves. 

Maybe one leader motivates people to perform minimum compliance or look for jobs elsewhere, back biting and even to indulge in sabotage. Able leaders create the conditions for people to do things better, faster and more cheaply. To volunteer that suggestion at the team meeting, to help a customer beyond their contracted hours, to give up lunch to mentor the new team member.

Secondly, they remember that it’s their role to deal with it actively. They remember to plan when turning around an unmotivated employee. It’s not just something to 'wing.'

Know your employees

I mean really know them. This is beyond what car he or she drives, their hair colour and the like. It’s more about what are their underused skills, parts of her role they enjoy, hobbies, etc. In short, take an active interest in them as people.

Now think of someone in your team. How would they react to a local newspaper featuring them as a great employee? If you’re not 99.9% certain that your thoughts are right, then take an action to deepen your relationships with them.

Make sure you use some of your energy to notice how your people are. This may be slight changes in their behaviour or performance. It’s all too easy to see but not notice. Great leaders notice and then check out what they sense. Gurus have written much about remembering to use your gut-feel as well as tools such as flowcharts and algorithms on the way to action. This is true of motivating employees. You may have inherited your team and so need to consciously rise above your prejudices and biases.

Planning ahead for difficult conversations

Deciding to act is one thing: acting well is another. Many managers have floundered on the sea of good intentions. It’s important therefore to think about whom you have decided to speak to, how they might react and how you will handle it. Road test your approach by honing what you intend to say until you know it is crisp, clear, constructive and likely to create meaningful dialogue with that person.

Running a mental movie to see yourself having the conversation, hear yourself and your employee’s responses and feeling what you will be like can be very powerful. If this visualisation is good enough for world champion sports people, then it’s good enough for leaders.

My preference is to practise aloud with a confidant colleague. HR people ought to be ideal for this. You tell them how they should behave, and then you actually have the conversation with them. The Benefits of getting as near as possible to the actual situation are enormous.

Having the difficult conversation

This could range from: “I’ve a sense that you are a little jaded just now. Would I be right in that feeling?” to a more formal meeting with the unmotivated employee.

However you decide to have your conversation, remember to get to root causes before charting agreed actions toward success. Nervous managers grab a symptom, jump to actions like training before returning to work convinced that they have ticked the box.

Better managers ask more questions: “What specifically?” or “What do you want right now?” are examples or: “On a scale of one to ten how happy are you at work just now?”  The scaling question option means you can explore further with for example: “What leads you to a six?”, “What would make it a seven for you?” etc.

As you can tell, the effective manager needs to stay in a resourceful state so that he or she can think. That means remaining assertive. Employees become unmotivated for many reasons. Often what’s a big thing for them is a minor thing to others. Just some examples are lack of confidence with technology, change, feeling of being ‘put down’ at a recent meeting, being ignored after doing a great job.

Lastly, keep your sense of proportion by knowing that the employee spends just one third of their time at work. Factors outside the workplace can lead to the unmotivated employee. Remember though, that it's always a good thing to deal with it positively. If it's a work reason; great because you can get to the bottom of it and solve it together. If it's outside work, you can make work the best sanctuary for them, maybe signposting them to specialist help and finally demonstrate that you care about them.

Support and challenge the employees

Eddie Davies’ NAF (novel, applicable, feasible) test provides possible things that you can do to create the conditions for employees to motivate themselves. Whatever you think of should pass the NAF test. Novel - is it new? Applicable - will it actually lead to motivation? Feasible - can you put the idea into practice?

The effective leader uses support and challenge with team members. One without the other is ineffective. Dealing with people’s motivation is not about being a counsellor or tyrant. The most inspirational leaders offer high support and high challenge to become a role model leader.

Create conditions for high performance

As a leader you, like Yul Brynner who played Chris in The Magnificent Seven, have the responsibility to use people to best effect and that means knowing them, having strong relationships and attending to demotivation issues as soon as they arise.

Your role is to create the conditions where people motivate themselves. The most effective leaders create conditions for high performance through high support and high challenge.
Be an Oscar-winning leader.