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Liz Uram


Motivating the Unmotivated: Don’t Give Up Too Soon

Six ways to motivate employees that have longer lasting results than money or disciplinary action

Published: Wednesday, March 31, 2021 - 11:03

When Mary started with the company, she was enthusiastic, energetic, and consistently the top salesperson on the team. She got along well with her co-workers and was known for her superior customer service skills. But over time, something changed.

Mary began to arrive to work late, leave early, and take long lunches. The brief interactions with her co-workers usually turned into complaint sessions. She ignored phone calls and didn’t respond to emails. Customers were frustrated. Mary spent more time on her cell phone than doing the work she was getting paid for.

John, Mary’s manager, was at his wit’s end. He wanted Mary to get back to the level of work he knew she was capable of. He went from one extreme to the other trying to motivate her. First, he tried money. Then, he tried disciplinary action. Both resulted in short-term improvements, but they didn’t last.

Does this situation sound familiar? If so, don’t give up too soon. There are six other ways to motivate employees that have longer lasting results than money or disciplinary action. The challenge is in determining what motivates employees.

Asking an employee outright what motivates him usually doesn’t work. Most people haven’t given it much thought. Instead, act like an investigator and look for the clues so you can identify the motivational factors of each individual.

Here are six common motivational factors and the clues to look for:

1. Belonging. People who are motivated by a sense of belonging get energized by being part of a group.

You might notice them coming up with creative ideas for celebrations or suggesting get-togethers. “When’s the last time we went out for happy hour?” they might say. Listen for what they do outside of work. Do they spend a lot of their free time with friends and family? Do they participate in group events like book clubs or sports teams?

Keep these employees motivated by asking for their for ideas; designate them as celebration coordinators and include them in projects.

2. Influence. A formal leadership title isn’t needed to have influence. Many people are happy with an informal leadership role where they can influence others.

You can identify them by their willingness to speak for the group. They are the go-to people when others need answers or reassurance. They are the people the team looks to for direction and advice.

Keep these employees motivated by asking them for their opinion on matters that affect the group. “How do you think the team is going to react to this change?” is a simple, yet effective way to let these people know that their position within the group is clear.

3. Appreciation. A simple, sincere thank you is what motivates employees who have this motivational factor. They just want acknowledgement for their efforts.

Employees who are motivated by appreciation talk a lot about their accomplishments. They might come to their one-on-one with a list of what they’ve done. Managers who don’t understand what clues to look for may mistakenly assume these people are full of themselves or just bragging. That usually isn’t the case. These employees are looking for some appreciation.

Keep these employees motivated by giving sincere, specific, and timely appreciation for their efforts. Catch them in the act of doing something right and comment on it immediately.

4. Achievement. People who are motivated by achievement are always looking to outdo themselves. Although they enjoy friendly competition, they are more interested in pushing themselves to be better than they were the day before.

They are usually self-starters who take an interest in their productivity. They tend to set goals both professionally and personally. They love the feeling of accomplishment when they can check off a goal, and then they are on to the next one.

Keep them motivated by communicating key performance measures, encouraging them to set bigger goals, and sharing their progress with them on a regular basis.

5. Security. People with this motivational factor have a high need for job or financial security. Anything that threatens their sense of security can demotivate them.

They might obsessively worry about their performance. They ask a lot of questions. They are excessively concerned about change. Some managers assume these people are needy. In a way they are. They need security, reassurance, and confidence in their abilities.

A manager can help these employees by taking the time to answer questions, communicating changes early and often, and boosting their confidence by giving them opportunities to prove they are capable.

6. Growth. These employees aren’t satisfied with the status quo. They have career goals, and they want opportunities to advance.

One of the most obvious clues is that they ask about career advancement when they interview for a job. They’re willing to take on extra responsibility to prepare themselves for their next step.

Keep them happy and motivated by talking to them about what they are interested in doing next, and creating a career path for them that clearly outlines a plan for advancement. Delegating projects is a way to provide growth opportunities if a promotion isn’t an option.

Back to John and Mary. Once John took the time to look for the clues, he realized that what Mary really wanted was appreciation. John wasn’t known for giving out verbal praise, but he was willing to give it a try. Instead of waiting until Mary told him about her accomplishments, he looked for opportunities to praise her. Before long, John saw improvements in Mary’s attitude, and she began to have the same energy and enthusiasm she had when she started.

It wasn’t easy for John to get out of his comfort zone, but it was a lot less expensive and stressful than what he had been doing.

Before you give up on unmotivated employees, challenge yourself to search for clues about how to motivate them. You might be surprised at what a big change can come from a small adjustment to handling motivation issues.


About The Author

Liz Uram’s picture

Liz Uram

Liz Uram is a nationally-recognized speaker, trainer, consultant, and author. She equips leaders with the tools they need to communicate like a boss so they can make a bigger impact, get better results, and motivate others to do their best. With 20 years of experience, she’s developed systems that work. Uram’s written four books packed full of strategies leaders can implement to get real results, real fast. For more information, please visit www.lizuram.com.


Other factors to consider

This article is good but too narrow. It assumes that the employee's change in behavior is due to lack of motivation. Before assuming this, first evaluate more deeply. Is it possible this employee is responding to stressors outside of the workplace and is too private or even embarrased to discuss it?  Perhaps there are issues at home that are impacting their work, such as a pending divorce or sick family. Maybe they need more flexibility in hours and duties for awhile to allow them to work through whatever the issue is. Disciplinary action will only serve to add to the stress and behavior problems, not alleviate it.  If the employer shows concern and allows for more flexibility it can acutally serve to increase staff loyalty and motivation once the stress issue eases because it shows compassion and value for the employee.