Engaging the Unmotivated Worker

What can you do as a leader when a team member is underperforming and not motivated to improve?

You’ve tried the basics:

  • Clearly communicating what you expect – early and often.
  • Providing instruction and training.
  • Leading by example by demonstrating hard work, drive and professionalism.
  • Appealing to the value of ‘doing your best.’ (Doesn’t everyone have this intrinsic motivation!?)

And you may have tried some things you now realize you shouldn’t have tried:

  • Threatening and intimidating.
  • Criticizing or embarrassing the person publicly.
  • Not confronting your colleague’s poor performance with the hope that your ‘generosity’ will keep morale up and inspire more effort and better performance.
  • Making a general statement to all in a team meeting and hoping the ‘guilty party’ will take the hint.

Here are a few other suggestions to improve engagement and motivation:

1. Tune into what motivates the person.

It may seem to you like your colleague is not motivated, but she is – just not by the same drivers that motivate you. It’s not your job as a manager to read minds, but it is your job to watch, ask and listen. Is she currently motivated most by advancement and learning opportunities, rewards and recognition, the type of work, flexibility and autonomy, or the people with whom she works? Learn what motivates your team members and take these drivers into consideration as you try to help them take ownership for improving performance.

2. Help the person see the impact of her behaviors and choices.

Try using S-B-I (Situation-Behavior-Impact.) This is a simple structure for communicating performance feedback in a non-accusatory, specific and objective way so that someone is more likely to hear and respond positively. Here’s an example.

  • Situation: “Last Friday…”
  • Behavior: “when you were late completing your work and didn’t give me advance notice,…”
  • Impact: “I had to rearrange my schedule and work late to keep us on track to meet the next deadline. I felt disrespected and annoyed – like you didn’t think my time was important. And I know others on the team noticed. I’m concerned that your reputation took a hit.”

Whatever you can do to help the person see clearly the impact and consequences of her choices – and connect these to what is important to that person – is more likely to help.

3. Remind her you’re on her side.

If someone knows you truly care about her and her success, she will be more likely to respond well to your tough but constructive feedback.

4. Remember it’s not your job to motivate someone else.

Ultimately, each of us must choose to take responsibility – or not – to be motivated and engaged to perform a job well. Effective leaders help position others to choose wisely.

Do your best to lead people to water, but you can’t make them drink.


Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. As a leadership consultant and executive coach, he helps executives and their teams improve engagement, effectiveness and impact. You can reach him at jbaker@people-results.com or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.