Manager’s Special: the demotivated employee

Photo courtesy Jypsygen

You can see it in the way a person walks. His shoulders are hunched. Her head hangs a second too long before she looks up. He leaves the office quietly at the end of the day, slipping out unseen because, of course, he fears he is.

If you’re managing a demotivated employee on your team, you’ve got a slowly-ticking time bomb. But the good news is that there are many ways you can re-engage this person, or at least vet out what it would take to do so.

First things first:
PUT DOWN YOUR BAGGAGE. You’re probably a little mad about it. The demotivated employee is probably not putting in as much energy as she used to. She might have missed deadlines, she’s lackluster in meetings and, depending how long this has been going on, she may have worn down your patience. If you care about changing the situation, though, the worst thing you can do is to start the conversation with a laundry list of blame.

Instead, you simply need to assess the situation. Pretend you’re a doctor and a patient has just walked in the office. What are the symptoms? You can’t solve problems until you diagnose the cause of them.

Here are a few of the many things that could be contributing to someone’s lack of motivation:

  • conflict with team members or managers
  • feeling a lack of support or respect
  • miscommunication
  • not matched with challenging work
  • ambiguous career path or growth opportunities
  • not connected to the company’s mission
  • burned out on a specific client
  • doesn’t feel part of a team
  • lack of a mentor or coach in his/her discipline

And here’s the fantastic news: EVERY SINGLE bullet on that list is fixable. That’s not to say that you’ll definitely solve things in the time frame needed to retain the employee, but it’s not impossible. As a manager, that’s always a great thing to hear. (Sometimes everything feels impossible when managing humans…)

Once you’ve parsed out what the underlying issues are, you can move forward. Sometimes this is a relatively easy fix (moving the employee to another client, for example), but other times it requires more gymnastics. Friction with a team member or manager will require some mediation or extra communication. Someone who’s anxious about her career path may send you down a different rabbit hole, reevaluating the organization’s culture and opportunities yourself so you can justify them to someone else.

Most of these potential fixes will stretch your patience, comfort level and time. That’s ok. That’s the work of a manager.

But a conversation is never one-sided and you’re not the only one on the job. Push your employee in the conversation as well. Ask for a renewed commitment to a deadline or project. Once they see you’re working to making things better and driving change for them, they should be happy to hold up their end of the bargain. 

You can’t always re-engage a demotivated employee, but you’d be surprised how little it takes sometimes. At the end of the day, increasing the motivation of anyone on your team can have drastic effects on the work and the team… so it matters. Push the boulder little by little up the hill because the truth is that, in the game of managing people, every little bit you do matters. Good luck!