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How do you Motivate the Unmotivated?

Kevin Anderson's picture
President, CVG

CVG is a leading North America workforce solutions provider to the Energy, Oil & Gas, Industrial and EPC industries. Kevin has had a lengthy and distinguished career that spans over 25 years...

  • Member since 2020
  • 20 items added with 28,389 views
  • May 6, 2021

Hello Utility HR & Recruitment Professionals, 

I have been reading a book by Dan Ariely called, "Payoff". The book is based upon experiments of workplace employees and how the employee is motivated to increase a number of different tasks or KPI/RKO's, such as: 1. Quality of work product 2. Efficiency of tasks 3. Productivity of output etc. 

As I reflect on how I was motivated advancing through my career, it would appear that FEAR was a motivating factor. It was the fear of losing a job and my financial stability that kept me motivated. I believe the common verbiage used by my superiors was, " Work or get fired!" 

As well as my generation was motived by money. Money was supposed to buy the American dream of happiness, ie. house, white picket fence, cars, boats, pools etc. We also believed in hard work, an honest day’s wage and taking pride in your work to feel an internal satisfaction.

Now fast forward to today’s generation and these motivations no longer apply. The drive for the white picket fence has been replaced with living tiny. A hard day’s work has been replaced with a just enough attitude. To top it all off, there is not a fear of losing your job. The cultural shift or perception is I can always get another job or become YouTube famous.


What or how do you motivate your staff in a culture that seems to lack motivation?



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Best Answer

Great question! My experience as the CEO of a leading manufacturing company in Brazil (electric power accessories) indicated that motivation derives from a set of "boundary conditions":

  1. Having a strategy plan and an associated operational plan

    This should be shared with managers so perceptions and motivations are aligned among all who have responsibilities along the organization

  2. Setting a bonus for actual achieved results

    This is an important driver. Who doesn't like an actual financial retribution for a well done job?

  3. Developing a "team" atmosphere

    Great results depend on a team. Upper managers must set up a team environment consistent with the goals. It means periodic meeting to make sure all important info and analysis are shared for the benefit of all 

But... motivation is primarily driven by the upper management. Proactive posture, interest in sponsoring a team work, super careful attention along the whole process are basic pre-conditions.



Israeli lawyer Moshe Strugano (Attorney - Moshe Strugano and Co Law firm),  an expert in the “formation of offshore companies" says in my profession I got many interns who were really unmotivated, but after few days when they started work and understand technicalities, they get motivated without anyone's help or words. All we can try is overcoming fear, when we overcome our fear, no one can make us unmotivated. 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on May 26, 2021

Interesting-- do you think it's overcoming fear? Or is there more so a sense of purpose once they're trained? 

A very important question for leadership at all levels. Even though i dont have much experience in leading a team, i believe in the fact that there are leaders in different dimensions in different organizations, communities etc. Those who follow also lead directly or indirectly. For instance, the captain of a ship is almost more visible than other members of the crew because of the position he occupies or because of his role in sailing the ship. However, there are those who contribute to the smooth running of the same vessel yet are 'invisble'. These individuals, at their levels, ensure the goals of the business are met and they contribute their quota effectively even though they feel unmotivated sometimes. So, certain things should be done to motivate and inspire such people continually.

1. Encourage Creativity and Avoid Boredom:

I believe creativity should not be based on the work an individual does. It should be based on such thing as simple as giving ideas that can trigger unprecedented progress or may be an idea to embark on a retreat etc. That does not mean such idea or suggestion will come regularly. It means every suggestion can be brainstormed into something great and this helps unmotivated employee or member of a team feel valuable and motivated.

2. Create a career path:

Provisions and incentives can provoke motivation. For example, when the opportunities to acquire new skills and other similar platforms are made available, members of your team increase their commitments towards achieving organizational set goals. Psychologically, it helps them to feel useful and when such feelings are present, energy and potentials yet untapped are provoked and released and when these are properly managed and channelled, it takes the organisation to another level.

These are my few thoughts regarding how to motivate the unmotivated.

Wow-what a great question.  In my years as a manager, I am not sure I have ever truly found the answer to this question.  Some people are just wired to self-motivate while others are not - they need more incentives and push.  Understanding the personality type you are working with is important.  Also, it is important to remember employees are people; they have family and lives outside our companies. Finally, we need to remember that our company's goals and priorities are not always theirs.  

Over the years, we have tried numerous incentives and ideas to help motivate employees.  I would say that sometimes what I think moved the dial, our CEO maybe would disagree, but I will share with you my top ones: 

1) Give your full team a goal and incentive to strive towards!  While this may not move the dial for some team members, I believe the overall results will still be positive.  The team members that thrive on this will pull the others along, and they might even bring the less motivated up into the fold  - even if it is only a slight increase in performance and motivation.  Depending on the type of person you are working with, and what is going on in their personal life, you may not be able to impact every single person at the same time. 

This probably works best for a company that is not in start-up mode: In the middle days of Energy Central, we had annual goals with a huge incentive award.  We took the whole team and their significant others to Cancun for a company celebration trip for set goals met.  Many employees who are with us today still talk about these trips, and I think the impact and incentive of the trip overall paid off.  It also created an opportunity to build comradery and team-building. Plus, the trip was much more memorable than a bonus paid out that, 10 years from now, most employees will not remember! 

Lego Award program:  In the early days at Energy Central, I started a program where employees could recognize other employees or thank them for help by giving what we called "lego awards." How it worked.  Employees were given a stack of legos with labels on them. Each week they could write the name of the employee there were thanking or recognizing on the label.  And then, at the huddle, they would present the award to their teammate. The teammate would then add it to our lego table.  By the end of this program, we had a whole lego city built.  To add to the fun, during this time, many of us had young kids who would visit the office, and when they did, they would reconfigure our lego city :)

2) Clear communication of your goals and how they fit in those goals.  This can be hard to do when you are trying to stay on top of the day-to-day workload or if you are in start-up mode.  At the very least, if you cannot convey long-term goals, try to stay in constant communication with your team. 

3) Some employees may not be a fit for your company. It is hard to admit sometimes, but it just maybe you have the wrong person in the wrong role.  That does not necessarily make them a bad employee or person; they may just not be in the right position.  In many cases, this means they are not a fit for your company.  Recognizing this sooner than later is important for both your company, the teammates they are working with, and for the employee.  If you have to let them go, there may be less animosity if you do it before they get too deep down the rabbit hole of despair or hate for the job.  Also, they can pull other team members down with them, and you want to prevent that from happening. 

I could probably write a book about this - but I will leave it at these three.  I would love to hear what other companies have done to motivate their employees. 



Hello Kevin,

A timeless question for leadership!

I agree with Rafael's answer and would add a few observations.

  • While leadership can promote motivation and align the reward system, the employee's self-motivation is also important. 
    • If the employee took your job only for pay, then fear of losing the pay is a likely motivator. 
    • If the employee wants professional development, challenging assignments and worthwhile training/education are likely motivators.
    • If the employee took your job for adult interactions, perhaps a sales role is more suitable.
  • All of these demand a dialogue with employees.   Over my career in leadership (since 1990), I have always met my subordinates to discuss their career goals.  I do not mix job performance into this discussion, it's just about them and what they want.  I've found some want to move into management, some want varied and challenging work assignments, and some want the status quo.  I've found that if you know what they want, you can align work assignments to match interests and obtain extra effort to produce superior results.
  • With all of that said, some employees have that "just enough" approach you mentioned.  This is where an HR performance management system comes in.  They need a personal improvement plan and they either improve (fear as a motivator) or they are let go.  
  • When hiring, I've always looked for indications of ability but also motivation.  I like to look at college GPA.  A GPA of 2.5 is "just enough" and so I would probe for reasons (e.g. held a 40 hour a week job while in school).  A GPA around 3.0 is good but to me, 3.3 or better is a clear indication that the candidate is motivated to achieve.

I hope all of this helps out!

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