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Leadership Question – What Do I Do about that Unmotivated Employee that Does His/Her Job … But Who I Know Could Do So Much More?


full-potentialBy Kelly Vandever

Last week I was conducting a class for new managers and one of the exercises is designed to get the participants to work together in small groups to receive peer coaching on an employee who is “motivationally challenged.”

As I eavesdropped on one of the groups, I heard Owen say, “It’s not that he doesn’t do his job. He does what I ask him. He does a good job. But he never goes beyond what’s asked of him. He’s been there for 26 years. There’s so much he could be teaching the newer employees.”

Often times during this exercise, participants talk about a new perspective or a different approach they plan to use based on something they’ve learned from the class. But nothing we’d discussed seemed to spark any new ideas for Owen. He was still stymied over what to do about this employee.

Another member of the group, Kevin, chimed in. “I have an employee like that too. He’s actually very good when I ask him to do things related to the job. But he’s never proactive. He never takes the initiative to do more.”

Those in the small group asked a few questions based on some of what we’d discussed in class. What’s the employee’s personality type? What does the individual find motivational? How have you approached the persons?

Owen and Kevin aren’t alone. In every management class I teach, there’s usually at least one manager who has that employee. The one who does their job to a satisfactorily level. But who the manager sees potential in and who the manager wishes would be willing to step up and do so much more.

Why Do Employees Just Do Their Job?

Maybe one question to ask ourselves first as leaders is how did the employee get to this point in the first place? How did they get to the stage where they are willing to do their jobs, but not give any additional effort?

Here are a few reasons why employees may just be doing what they have to … and nothing more.

Lack of Recognition and Appreciation

One reason employees may not be willing to step it up now, is because of what happened in the past.

If in the past, the employee did do extra work and nothing happened as a result … if no one thanked him for going above and beyond, if it never got reflected in how he was treated or paid … then maybe that employee said to himself, “Why should I go above and beyond? No one appreciates it. I’ll just do my job and take my paycheck home. It’s not worth it to go above and beyond.”

Can you blame them? After pouring into your job and seeing nothing come out of it, isn’t a natural human response to stop trying so hard?

I Don’t Pay You to Think: Just Do Your Job

Similar to the lack of recognition and appreciation is the individual who gets turned off because they’ve made suggestions and their manager doesn’t do anything with the input.

Of course not every suggestion that an employee makes is going to be golden. But if they make suggestions and their manager says, either overtly or subliminally “I don’t pay you to think. Just do your job,” then again, isn’t it human nature to get turned off and just do what you have to do to get by?

Learned Behavior

Without getting into deep psychologic analysis, maybe the individual learned this behavior at home or early in their career. Maybe they heard stories like those above. Maybe they went above and beyond and they got burned by a jealous boss, a co-worker, or a union rep.

If the employee learns these lessons, either through someone they respect or through their personal experience, once that behavior is formed, it would be difficult to betray the teaching of those you have counted on or to overcome the mistrust created through your own experience. They stay the course because that’s what they’ve learned to believe is the right path.

What You Can Do to Keep This Happening – or Reverse It When You See It

I’m an eternal optimist. I have to retain hope that there’s something we can do! Here are my suggestions.

Explore the Employee’s Past

If you have an employee who doesn’t want to give extra effort, state what you’ve noticed (you do what I ask of you, you do good work, but you don’t ever want to seem to go above what’s required of your role … using specific examples to illustrate your point). Pause for a moment to see if they have something to say just based on you sharing your observation. Then ask if there’s something that happened, something that you as their manager should be aware of that influences their approach to work.

You may get an answer. You may not. Or maybe you don’t get an answer in that moment, but maybe later your employee may be willing to open up to you. If there was some sort of past history, maybe you’ll discover it.

Explore Your Employee’s Needs, Goals and Strengths

Get to know your employee better. Find out what they find motivating. Find out about their goals. Understand their strengths. For more on finding out more about your employee’s needs, goals and strengths, try the approach found at this blog post.

Show Appreciation

Showing appreciation may be the easiest thing you can do. To do it well, always…

  • Be specific – what specifically did they do that you appreciated and what was the impact of what they did
  • Be timely – show your appreciation close to the time when the activity/event occurred so that they remember what it was they did and so they know you notice and pay attention to them
  • Be sincere – be genuine in showing your appreciation – everyone can detect a phony

It’s free to be sincere and show appreciation. Recognize people for the good work they do.

Be Fair

If someone is going above and beyond multiple times, is there something more you can do for them? Something that they’d find rewarding?

Monetary recognition is always nice but there may be other things the employee finds equally or even more motivating such as time off, a special award, face time with senior leaders, participation in a special project, growth opportunities, increasing responsibility, promotion, autonomy.

Check out Daniel Pink’s book Drive for more on what motivates employees – and what doesn’t!

Be Open to Employee’s Ideas and Be Mindful of How You Handle Suggestions You Don’t Do Something With

When employees give you feedback on how things work or make suggestions or request something be changed, listen.

Explore the idea to see if it’s something you can adopt. Be willing to accept another way of accomplishing a task as long as the outcome gives you what you need … even if you would have done it another way.

If you’re not sure of the viability of the suggestion, get input from other employees, your peers, your manager. Be open to other’s perspectives.

If an employee asks for something and you can give it to him or her without causing harm, do it, even if it doesn’t make sense to you. Trust them to know what they need and want to do better at their job.

And when you can’t implement an employee’s suggestion, be deliberate on how you handle the situation. If at all possible, explain why you won’t be moving forward with the idea. People are reasonable. They’ll understand. If you have additional information influencing your decision that you can’t share, tell them that. Don’t leave them hanging. If they were being forward enough to bring the idea to you, you owe it to them to get back with an answer, even if the answer is no.

Prove Yourself Over Time

It may just take some time for your employees to trust that you have their best interest in mind. Prove to them over time that you care.

  • Encourage your employees to bring their whole selves to work.
  • Ask them if there’s something they would like to be doing that you haven’t given them the opportunity to do.
  • Ask them for feedback on your organization’s processes.
  • Find out what they wish they could change about their job.
  • Engage employees in real and meaningful conversations about the work they do.
  • Shadow them on their job so they can show you how awesome they are.
  • Praise and recognize their efforts.

It May Not Change … But at Least You Can Try

There’s nothing “wrong” per se with someone who does their job but doesn’t want to go above and beyond. We need people to do the work and if the employee is doing the work at an acceptable level, then the work gets done.

But it is frustrating

Looping back around to Owen and Kevin. I eventually joined the small group discussion and there weren’t any easy answers.

Because Owen revealed that his employee loved to tell stories and enjoyed having a crowd around him, we suggested that maybe Owen try again to see if his employee could be persuaded to put his storytelling abilities to work to educate his fellow employees. I shared with Owen how many organizations are capturing the wisdom of experienced employees on video that they can then make available for other employees to watch. That ideas seemed to strike Owen as something his employee might like to do.

Kevin shared that his employee was fairly young and seemed to be extremely shy. I suggested Toastmasters and discussed how I’d seen Toastmasters really help build up the confidence of painfully shy individuals and positively affected their careers. Kevin was going to encourage his employee to join a local club.

There’s no one size fits all answer to the question “What Do I Do about that Unmotivated Employee that Does His/Her Job … But Who I Know Could Do So Much More?”

Explore these ideas with your employee and let us know how it goes. If you’ve tried other things that have worked for you, please share in the comments section below so we can learn from you!

Kelly Vandever is a leadership and communications expert who helps leaders and organizations thrive in today’s attention-deficit, entertain-me-now, wait-while-I-post-that-on-Facebook world. Learn how opening up and speaking practically can bring you better business results. Connect Kelly by phone at 770-597-1108, email her at Kelly.Vandever @ SpeakingPractically.com or tweet her @KellyVandever.