How to motivate the unmotivated


To garner the most motivation and results, give everyone in your company the big picture. To illustrate this point, allow me to present a scenario brought to my attention last month, in which a manager asked for input on her plan for solving a motivational problem. With her permission, here is her inquiry (followed by my response).

"I work for a large company with multiple offices. Based on my track record of success within the company, I was recently promoted to manage a department of about 30 people. Unfortunately, this department has a terrible reputation and they've had a tough time finding someone to turn it around. I'm the third person in two years with this position.

"During my first five weeks, while striving to understand the work and the people, I realized why the department has a nasty reputation. For example, I saw a senior employee letting the phone ring seven times before she unplugged the cord. I overheard another employee describing how she handled people who "hassled" her to process their paperwork faster – she put their file in her out-basket 'by mistake.'

"Last week I discovered four clerks were still processing paperwork the old way instead of using software installed two years ago. Shockingly, whenever I go to the break room someone from my department is in there napping.

"On most mornings the phones ring unanswered for ten to fifteen minutes because staff is arriving late. When I question them, their excuses are both abundant and lame.

"They seem to be good people, but whatever spark they once had is gone. It's not lack of pay or work conditions - both of those are adequate. It's just the culture. Even new people lose their spark in a very short time.

"Yesterday my own manager told me that senor management wants to see more productivity or drastic changes will occur and people will be let go. They say my department is having a negative effect on the organization.

"I need a quick fix. What do you think of the following corrective actions?

Institute performance-based pay. Example: People will answer the phone if they know they'll get better pay for doing so.

Start a mandatory training program. Train everyone on the software, how to process documents more efficiently, and how that will improve their pay.

Create an organizational chart. Establish a better hierarchy and allocate tasks."

My response:
Although these actions look good by themselves, they will not provide the quick impact you seek. Unfortunately, I think you'll need to wield a big stick.

My usual approach is to start with carrots and move to using a stick only if carrots bring no results. But since your team is up against the wall there's no time for just carrots. Senior management has already threatened the stick, so your job at this point is to be fair but be firm.

Because research shows that only seven percent of workers know how their work contributes to the big picture, let's start there. I recommend the following:

A. Hold a meeting to connect their work with the big picture.

1. Remind people of the vision / mission of the company and that everyone in the company is on the same team.

2. Inform them you've personally observed unacceptable performance and that it's these types of actions that give them their reputation as a "toxic energy dump."

3. Ask them to think through their near-term future. Do they want to work elsewhere, or do they want to be part of the company team and its vision and mission? Don't worry if people opt to leave. If they won't support the company, they shouldn't be there.

4. State that people not dedicated to the company vision and mission will be identified by the quality of their work. Those people will be asked to find work elsewhere.

5. Ask what the department can do as a team to help the company achieve its goals. Write down what they say, as this begins to form goals for your department.

6. As a team, turn these ideas into SMART Goals with specific actions and deadlines.

B. Select your best people and put them in charge of tracking progress on the goals, one person per goal. They should be 100% responsible for ensuring those goals are met. Make progress and achieving those goals part of those employees' performance reviews.

C. Revisit and revamp job descriptions for all employees in the department (see my free ebook at Then use those job descriptions to train people and also for evaluating them (as described in the e-book).

I also recommend you read - and study - my book Creating Passion-Driven Teams. Motivation is fire lit from within. You can't light that fire, but you can create the conditions for that fire to burn brightly.

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and an accomplished keynote speaker. He's been providing management and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 20 years.