Motivating the Unmotivated

George Carlin once said, “The highly motivated people in society are the ones causing all the trouble. It’s not the lazy, unmotivated folks sitting in front of a TV eating potato chips who bother anyone.” A lack of motivation may be OK behavior in your living room, but if you find an unmotivated employee in your workplace, it may be affecting your entire organization. The lazy employee may cause other employees to consider adopting that behavior.

Do you have an employee who seems to lack focus, takes a lot of time off, or regularly disappears from their desk? Have they become distant from their peers or make comments that are not appropriate for the office? Effective leaders cannot ignore such behavior.

But before you do anything, it may be helpful to understand why a person can become unmotivated. Of course, problems at home can impact a person’s performance at work. But other things like being bored or feeling underappreciated can contribute to this change in attitude. Besides,, your employees may be frustrated by a lack of career progression or even understanding how their work fits into the larger picture or importance to the organization.

All workers want to know that their work is essential. That is why management must share its vision and objectives with employees. Doing so makes individual projects fit in better with the overall goals.

Leaders cannot ignore the unmotivated.

Sit down with the employee you are concerned about in a private environment. Speak about your observations and concerns. Ask if there is a specific problem that is causing them to be unproductive. Be prepared to listen and not become defensive. You might learn about a deeper-seated problem that must be fixed for the good of the organization.

Give them something to strive for. Encourage them to try a more positive outlook, mainly if you can solve some of the issues that they see as getting in their way. Tell them that their attitude affects others. Tell them the story of the two salesmen who were sent to Africa by a British shoe manufacturer. They were supposed to investigate a new market for shoes. The first salesman came back with a rather dismal report, “There’s no potential at all here because nobody wears shoes. “The second salesman came back with a slightly different reply, “There’s massive potential in Africa because nobody wears shoes.” Get them to see the upside of their work.

Agree to a follow-up meeting or meetings if that is necessary.

Consider whether your employees have measurable goals. Those goals must be how a person is judged. You don’t have to socialize with the person you work with, but you have to get your job done, and that involves having a civil attitude.  A passive-aggressive approach or saying, “I won’t work with that person” is never acceptable.

If your larger workforce is showing signs of slowing down and not getting their jobs done, take a look at the environment they work in and think about what can be done to improve it.

It may be a policy that employees don’t make personal calls on company time, but we all know that is not realistic. Employees need the Internet on their computers, but it is unrealistic to assume they won’t check their personal email on work time.  You may need to be somewhat flexible while still not allowing your new policy to be abused. reports that 64% of employees visit a non-work related website at least once every day. I’m surprised the number is not larger. HR Magazine said that 70% of all porn websites are accessed between 9 am and 5 pm. Of course, you need to have policies in place, but you also have to demonstrate that your trust your workers. While you are developing those policies, remember that 53% of workers would give up their sense of smell rather than their connected devices.

Your organization might want to shift its focus away from a time clock approach, where everyone must be at their desks at 8:30 am, and you all leave together at 5 pm. Measure against goals, not the time clock. Have honest conversations with people and make sure your workplace behavior mirrors those you want others to adopt.

One thought on “Motivating the Unmotivated

  1. I worked for a tiny events company with three full time employers and the owner, just four of us in the office. The work was really fun – we produced street festivals and other public and private events and I was programming multiple stages. But the owner was an oddball, especially about hours. Work started at 8:30 am, lunch was at noon and the workday ended at 5:30 pm. I’d only been in the job for about two weeks and I was working on a project when noon rolled around. The other three people went to lunch, but I didn’t want to stop in the middle, so I stayed behind to finish what I was doing. I was still working when they came back from lunch. When I was done with my project, I told the owner that I was going to run out and grab a sandwich. He said no, lunch is at noon and if you don’t go at noon, you don’t go to lunch at all. While I loved the work, I left in less than a year. Its a great example of a leader’s failure to recognize how their behavior effected their staff.


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