What do I do with a demotivated employee?

How to motivate the unmotivated..

It is true of most workplaces and teams that there will, from time to time be employees who are just demotivated. This is almost more frustrating than ongoing poor performance, because it is often so nebulous. It can be hard to pin down what the actual issue “is”, other than a sinking suspicion that you could be getting so much more from an employee.

So, what to do? Firstly, a bit of detective work is necessary to understand what is going on..

  • There are the obvious things first — does the employee know what is expected of them? Both generally in terms of the role, and specifically in terms of your particular expectations of them and the way that they perform the role.
  • Do you know what makes the employee tick? A recent profiling example of an employee showed that he had a very strong lack of preference for process type tasks.  Upon debriefing his profile, he confessed that the policy and procedure writing part of his job was terribly difficult for him from a motivation perspective. Sometimes, understanding the employee can provide insights around why some tasks or aspects of roles are just hard.
  • Is the organisation and/or role right for the employee in terms of values fit? I know a number of employees who have struggled in roles when their organisations have taken a different strategic turn; and the employee just wasn’t able to come along for the journey.
  • Is there sufficient stretch in the role so that there is challenge?  Do you know what would give that particular employee stretch in a way that is meaningful to them and their broader career?
  • Is the job doable in terms of expectations and resources?  Do they need more training or support?
  • Does the role have purpose and meaning for the employee? Can he see how what he does matters and how it fits into the broader organisation’s purpose?
  • Is there stuff going on in the employee’s personal or home life which is so full, complicated or difficult that it makes focussing at work unreasonably difficult? This can be either positive or negative stuff.
  • Is there stuff going on organisationally that means that the organisation or the role is insecure or particularly chaotic? It can be difficult to remain motivated when you fear for the ongoing security of your job.
  • Does the employee have physical or mental health issues that make it difficult to remain focussed and motivated at work.
  • Is this the right job for the employee? It can be very difficult to remain motivated whilst performing a role that is just not the right fit.
  • Are there issues with dynamics within the team, unhelpful behaviours (such as bullying) or, is the issue you? Are there issues with your management and leadership style?

Now, some of these questions are within your control as their manager or leader. Some require additional insights such as profiling, and some require an openness and insight from the employee.

Whatever the underlying reason, the starting point is a conversation; where you are clear about what you observe (providing examples to illustrate) but are also supportive around wanting to understand and, most importantly, emphasise that you want to work with the employee to find a solution.

Of course, it’s true that this sort of conversation can be difficult, particularly if the relationship is already strained or where there is a lack of trust in the relationship. Sometimes, it can be worth having either a “let’s put our cards on the table” conversation, or “can we wipe the slate clean and start again” conversation. Or, get someone else (someone the employee trusts) to have the conversation with them. Or, if the relationship is really strained, suggest mediation or a facilitated discussion to work through the issues together.  Or, if none of that works or is appropriate, suggest that the employee work with your organisation’s EAP to come up with a solution.

Demotivated team members are hard work. And they can cause wider issues within the team, as a lack of motivation can be contagious. So, it’s important to identify the issue and work with the employee to find a solution as quickly as possible.

So, this week’s leadership takeaways:

  • Don’t just ignore the issue — call it out early but in a way that is supportive.
  • Be specific and clear on how this is impacting the employee’s job and the wider team.
  • Remember it’s easy to blame the employee — but there are times when we as leaders contribute to the problem.
  • Be open minded and creative as to the underlying issue and possible solutions.

Until next week, happy leading.

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