Motivating Employees When All Else Fails

A serenity-prayer-inspired saying goes, “Grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the courage to change the person I can, and the wisdom to know it’s me.”  

When attempts at motivating an employee are going poorly, what can you do before you show them the door? Look at yourself.

Here are two sample dialogues to illustrate different managerial mindsets with very different motivational results. In this scenario, a relatively new employee has gone from good to lethargic to obstinate.

Sample 1:

Manager: I have noticed that we are struggling to make progress, and I guess that’s as dissatisfying for you as it is for me. I suspect I am part of the problem. Would you help me understand what I could do better?

Employee: What? No, whatever. Just relax. I don’t know.

Manager: I’m serious, and I believe you want to be successful. How can I support you in that?

Employee: I don’t know. Just don’t worry so much about it.

Manager: Can you tell me more about that? I hear that you want me to relax and not worry. What would that look like for you?

Employee: It just feels like you’re looking over my shoulder all the time. Ready to pounce as soon as I make a mistake. I freeze up.

Manager: Huh. You expect a lot of criticism from me?

Employee: I don’t know--you’re just breathing down my neck all the time.

Manager (sensing defensiveness rising up, takes a deep breath and lets it go): Okay, I hear that I’m hovering. And you feel  like I’m paying too much attention. I have wanted to be close by in case you needed anything.

Employee: In case I needed to be corrected. Just let me finish before you jump on it and tear it up.

Manager: You do expect criticism. Have I been critical?

Employee (takes a deep breath, finally realizing the manager is genuinely trying): Look, I don’t think you mean to be, but yeah, you are. You only tell me what’s wrong with it, or even better you just do it again yourself. That sucks. Why am I here if you’re just going to do the job yourself?

Manager (the pieces are falling into place): AH. Now I get it. When I change what you’ve done, you feel like your work has been meaningless.

Employee: Yeah! It makes me want to leave.

Manager: What if I gave you a chance to go through it on your own, gave you feedback about what I do and do not like, and then let you try again?

Employee: I know that seems like it would take a lot longer, but it would give me a chance to learn what you really want, and maybe I’d start to get it right.

Manager: Okay, you’ve got a deal.

Employee: Yeah, okay.


Sample 2:

Manager: I’m not getting through to you. What’s it going to take?

Employee: I don’t know. Just relax.

Manager: *walks off, muttering that it was a waste of time.*


Which of these two seems likely to be more motivational for the employee?

Which of the two do you experience more commonly?

The employee in the first scenario will be skeptical about the manager making a change until the change actually happens and sticks, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Here are a few characteristics managers can cultivate in themselves in order to have more conversations like the first:

  • Willingness to learn -- accepting that past decisions might not have been good for the employee or the company.
  • Willingness to change -- based on input, requests, and/or suggestions from the employee.
  • True curiosity -- suspending judgment in favor of finding out what is really going on and what would really help.
  • True confidence -- managers must believe that their self-worth is not tied up in unquestioning obedience. They must be capable of believing in themselves while also acknowledging that they have taken action that wasn’t right for this employee.

Bottom Line: When we struggle to motivate others, try to engage openly in self-examination, inviting feedback and remaining open to change.

It feels counterintuitive at first because we are so aware of what those others are doing that should be different. But, no matter how hard you try you cannot change someone else.

You can effectively change yourself, and when you change yourself you change the dynamic of the relationship. That will always have an impact.

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