Motivating the Unmotivated

Renowned football coach Lou Holz had an interesting view of self-motivation. He once said: “My task is not to motivate people to play great football. They are already motivated when they come to me. My challenge is simply not to de-motivate them.”

Motivation is a word that supervisors and managers use frequently, in helping organizations build stronger and higher performing teams. Human resource trainers and consultants have turned the word into a lucrative industry, peddling motivation concepts and new insights to bring out the best in employees. We know that some are easily motivated to achieve stretch goals, execute difficult tasks, accept hardship postings, and handle unpleasant jobs. But the truth is that there are many who remain unmotivated in their jobs or worse, are not engaged with their teams.

Motivation is simply the ability to generate additional energy within your team, or giving them a further boost. Motivation, just like the high morale of a combat unit, is regarded as a combat multiplier. It is harder for someone to motivate you unless you are “self” motivated in the first place. You can’t be motivated by someone to march the extra mile, unless you want to and believe that you need to. The leader tries to highlight the larger purpose, be it the greater good, better outcomes or the raison d’être, so that team members will want to do it despite personal sacrifices and higher costs. Motivation works only if individuals can align their personal needs with shared values. To motivate, you essentially focus on the purpose, the wider intent, and what is worthwhile that will make everyone willing to do the task; not what the commander tells the soldiers to do.

What really motivates your team?

Most employees are generally self-motivated by a set of internal values, derived as a result of upbringing, education, and community actions. Many are motivated by meaningful work, challenges, and other psychological needs such as the desire to contribute. Others are motivated by rewards, incentives, promotion, and public affirmation. But nothing motivates better than a sense of belonging, happiness in the workplace, being in control, and feeling trusted by bosses and peers.

Why are some not motivated?

You can find unmotivated or disinterested employees in any company. They come to work, give eight hours of work, go home on time, and hardly participate in corporate social events or weekend bonding sessions. Many choose to cruise below the radar, do not want to get noticed, ensuring that they will not get into trouble. They are the last to volunteer to do additional stuff or speak up to give their views. When I was living in the United States from 2004 to 2007, I read of their alarming statistics that 25% to 35% of employees are not motivated. That’s almost one-third of the workforce! They loiter around the water cooler, take frequent coffee breaks or call in sick if they don’t feel like coming to work in the mornings. While serving in the army, I found many reluctant national servicemen “marking time” and waiting to serve out their two years of compulsory conscription and avoiding the risk of more responsibilities. What are the reasons of such de-motivation? Perhaps, they feel that national service is a waste of their time, they would not learn anything purposeful, and that the threat of war is remote. They do not see any reason to give of their best. Lack of motivation can be traced to a disbelief in what the company is doing, a lack of respect for the leadership, irrelevant vision, no recognition for their work, feeling not connected to the organization or being under an aloof organizational climate where the top guns makes all the decisions.

The need to empower.

From my military experience, reluctant soldiers can be empowered and they do take initiative. They want to be treated as thinking soldiers. Sadly, leaders do not spend enough time explaining the main purpose of the task or the project with less motivated employees. Leaders fail to see the importance of first winning the hearts of their followers. Employees in today’s connected world expect more transparency and so bosses will have to share information readily and communicate on how the team is performing. Giving timely feedback on how the business is doing, what mid-course corrections are required, bad news, etc., are some examples of information that employees need. Provide more face-time with weaker employees. Once they feel that they are valued and are part of the team, trust would be built.

Besides information, team members desire a sense of autonomy or control. They want to be assigned specific tasks within their control and feel a sense of contribution. Soldiers want to be assigned clear responsibilities and tasks. For example, which sector am I supposed to defend, who to destroy the identified high value target, who to protect and escort the supply convoy, etc. They want to be given the chance to decide to pull the trigger, to close the minefield, to call in the Apache Attack Helicopters or save their Private Ryans. Everybody wants to have some form of contribution and if that is not possible, at least an ability to influence it, such as providing early warning of a threat. You need to give each of them that chance to be the hero. Soldiers also want to be part of the decision-making process. They want their views to be heard. They are just as concerned with the dangers, the risks, and the outcomes of any mission. The team members need to be confident that the final decision can be executed by everybody, that there is a back-up, and that their commander is dependable. These expectations are relevant in the marketplace too. Setting clear expectations on job performance, discussion on levels of competency, providing support, giving them space to make mistakes; these are all essential to make your team members more motivated and engaged. Once the unmotivated team members get a chance to be empowered, they become self-motivated.

Leading with your heart.

Experts have suggested at least three domains in leading – leading with your head, your heart, and your guts. The essence is that leading is not only a vision or a picture that you communicate to your followers but that you demonstrate that you really care for them and you want to bring everyone along the journey. Leading requires a whole range of actions – to tell and show, to care and grow, to pray and to cheer. Leading is best when leaders touch the hearts of their followers or employees. I find that leading with the heart is most crucial in managing the unmotivated or disengaged. Leading with the head is typically arguing the best options available, persuasion of the correct business model, least trade-offs, and best forward projections. Unfortunately, sound logic does not work all the time. Most followers will not easily buy into an argument of the future, even though the facts and trends may be crystal clear to the leader. People decide and work better on trust – can you be trusted to take care of your people?

There is no short cut in ascending to the position of leadership. Yes, one could be appointed a leader overnight but followers are motivated only by a real connection with the leader whom they can trust. Caring for your followers is a powerful form of leading. If you do not care for your staff, you are merely barking commands and dishing out directions. I know of employees who have worked for twenty years in the same company and the key reason is that their boss cares for them. The greatest source of power available to any leader is the leader’s respect for his followers. This is where a leader is different from a great manager. You lead and you also serve your team and look after their interests. You cheer them in your heart. You treat them like your children. “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Mt 25:21) is a strong reminder that as leaders, we have a responsibility to train and prepare others to achieve their best. You are willing to let them take the plunge, learn by doing it themselves, and learn through their mistakes. You nurture them.

In the army, units ensure that there are no weak soldiers in the team, as they would potentially be the weakest links. Weak soldiers must undergo additional training, until they meet the required performance standards. Typically they will give their best once they know that their poor performance can jeopardize their team. Their rate of improvement is usually linked to how well they are being cared for by their commanders and how their improvements will impact the team’s performance. If these less motivated soldiers see a clear relationship and partnership with their peers and colleagues in their performance, they tend to show significant improvements in a short time.

People want to be well-led and it is no different whether it is in the army, the marketplace or in a church ministry. People leave organizations when they see their leaders being self-serving or insincere. The unmotivated or disengaged staff could be prepared to put in their efforts if they are well guided, put into challenging jobs, and given opportunities and space to grow. Everyone needs guidance, coaching, and support to grow. Only a caring, engaging, and courageous leader will turn many unmotivated or disengaged staff to want to be part of the exciting journey that he has articulated. The leader activates the energies by leading with your heart.

The New International Version Bible has been referenced.

This article “Motivating the Unmotivated” by Lawrence Leong was first published in the May 2012 issue of Eagles VantagePoint magazine ( Used with permission.