How to Motivate Unmotivated Employees

by | Aug 15, 2022 | Employee Engagement and Retention, Flexible Work, Generations

The pandemic took the existing problem of low employee engagement and made it even worse. Remote work has enabled trends such as quiet quitting, in which an employee decides to do only the bare minimum, ghosting, in which employees actually quit their job without telling their employer, and moonlighting or being overemployed, in which employees keep their full-time job but work another one (or more!) at the same time.

These trends tend to be harbored by the younger generations, such as Gen Z and millennials, but they have been a long time coming. While the baby boomers were raised to work hard, Gen Xers aimed to “work smarter,” millennials demanded work-life balance, and now Gen Zers are looking for ways not to let work overrule their lives. And why should it? Even though other generations may not have thought this way, it isn’t a bad question to be asking.

Why should employees be expected to go above and beyond the work of their job descriptions? How did it become acceptable to expect employees to work more than full-time hours, to work late into the night or through the weekend when there is an impending deadline? How did it become the responsibility of the employees to make up for corporate shortcomings, like over promising customers, overspending budgets, over hiring employees?

These are good questions to contemplate for larger change. In the meantime, employers may want to start by figuring out how to engage employees who have different values and life goals. No matter what generation, what motivates one person may not motivate another. To find out what motivates each employee and how they would like to structure their work, a leader can ask each team member what their wants and needs are. To the extent possible, the leader can take their wants and needs into consideration when assigning work and recognizing performance. Here are some examples.

To motivate employees who want to work to live, give them opportunities to work flexibly, perhaps remotely, and be respectful of their time off. But also keep them accountable to make sure they are getting their work done. Over time, trust may be established to let these employees set their own hours and complete the work to which they have committed. For example, an employee who wants to have time to volunteer with their children’s schools or activities may be motivated by having a four-day workweek or the flexibility to take a couple of hours off during the and make it up by coming in early the next day. Ask them about their personal life and celebrate their joys with them, such as their child’s team winning the soccer game.

To motivate employees who are looking for purpose, stress the importance of the work they are doing and give them opportunities to work on projects that match their values. For example, emphasize how their data analysis on the pharmaceutical project contributed to saving patient lives. If they are looking for more or different purpose than their job offers, such as community work, it might be possible to give them time off from work to do it or engage in an organizational community project. For example, they could participate in a committee from the company to plan a toy drive or run with a company-sponsored team in a marathon to raise money for a charity. Support them in their efforts by encouraging people in the organization to bring in toys or sponsor runners and celebrate the team members’ participation in these events.

To motivate employees who are looking for power and impact, give them opportunities to take on more responsibility. For example, they might be highly motivated by an opportunity to take the lead on an initiative or present to the leadership team. Work with them on their career plan and see where there are ways to support them. For example, make them aware of opportunities in and outside of the organization to develop their leadership skills, such as participating in an interdepartmental committee or industry group to build their visibility.

To motivate employees who love their work, give them opportunities to do more of what they love. For example, a coder may love learning and relish the opportunity to try out a new framework or algorithm. Assemble teams of people who complement each other so they each can contribute their strengths and passions. For example, one research scientist may love data analysis, and another may prefer writing and it might make sense to break up the tasks involved in creating a research report accordingly.

None of these motivation techniques need to require employees to work extra hours, but highly motivated employees may do so on their own initiative. In any case, motivated employees are more engaged, and they are more likely to perform at a higher level than unmotivated employees.

**To ensure fairness and equity across team members, please have HR and/or legal review individualized approaches to performance management.