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How to stop good employees from losing their motivation

How to stop good employees from losing their motivation

Posted on June 2021 By Nicholas Farley

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Motivation is defined as “a reason or reasons for acting or behaving in a particular way,” and in a professional environment this can translate to the willingness to get the job done despite distractions, and investing enough effort to succeed. 

If you break it down, motivation constitutes for 40% of the success of team projects.

However, since records began managers have struggled to effectively motivate uninspired employees. The Harvard Business Review’s research on motivation indicated a process to combat this – which is accurately identifying the reason for the employees’ lack of motivation and then applying a targeted strategy.

It’s crucial that managers carefully assess the nature of the lack of motivation before taking action. Using the wrong strategy (for example, trying to urge an employee that is struggling emotionally to be more efficient) can actually backfire, and most of the time will cause motivation to drop even further.

The reasons for a lack of motivation has been segmented into four categories – aptly named motivation traps. These four categories are: a mismatch in values, a lack of self-efficacy, disruptive emotions and attribution errors. Each of these has specific causes and comes with distinct strategies needed to release an employee from its grasp.

Below are the four motivation traps and each specific strategy to help your employees escape them:

Values mismatch: “I don’t care enough to do this”

This traps employees in a non-motivated frame of mind because if a task doesn’t connect with, or contribute to something that your employee values, they won’t be motivated to do it.

How to help your employee out of this trap: If you don’t know already, find out what your employee cares about and connect it to the task. Managers are too often guilty of focusing on what motivates them, and assuming the same is true of their team. Engaging in probing conversations and perspective taking can identify what your employee cares about and how that value links to the task.

There are different types of values that can be attributed to a task depending on what will motivate your team member. First, there is the interest value which is associated with how intellectually compelling a task is. To offer this, find the link between the task and things that the employee finds interesting,

Then, there is the identity value, which is how central the skill set demanded by a task is to an employee’s self-conception. Point out how the task utilises a capacity that they feel is a strong part of their role, like teamwork or problem solving.

There is also the importance value, clearly linked to how important the task is. As a manager, you should identify ways to highlight how it is crucially important that a certain task gets done to achieve the company’s mission.

Finally, the utility value is the equation of the cost of achieving and avoiding the task versus the larger benefits for achieving. Similarly to the importance value, it’s important to express how this task equates to the companies larger goals – and whilst it may be difficult, it will be worth it in the end.

When an employee is assigned a task that they don’t value and it’s hard to pin down which one of these values the lack of motivation is eluding to, a manager’s best bet is to try and appeal to multiple values as one or more should resonate.

Lack of self-efficacy: “I don’t think I’m capable of doing this”

This is a motivation trap for an employee, as they believe that they lack the capacity to complete the task, and therefore don’t have the motivation to carry it out.

How to help your employee out of this trap: Build the employee’s sense of confidence and competence. This can be done in many ways. A way to do this is to point out the times in the past that they have overcome similar challenges. You can also break the daunting task into smaller, more manageable chunks, as well as building their sense of self-efficacy with more difficult challenges over time.

More often than not, the employees which lack self-efficacy are convinced that succeeding at a particular task will need a huge investment of time and energy which is more than they can afford. Explaining that they have the ability to succeed but may have misjudged how much effort is required, and urge them to invest more effort letting them know that additional effort is the appropriate response. It helps if managers offer some extra support as work gets underway.

There is also the reverse of this motivation trap – where an employee doesn’t have motivation because they feel overqualified. Employees with an inflated sense of self-efficacy pose one of the more difficult challenges to motivation as a manager. It’s true that overconfident people often make mistakes, even if they’re certain they know what to do. When they don’t achieve, often it’s the criteria for judging success of the task that is flawed, so no responsibility is taken.

When dealing with these employees, it’s important not to challenge their ability or expertise – as this could have the opposite effect of what you want. However, demonstrate to them how they may have misjudged the requirements of the task and convince them it requires a different approach.

Disruptive emotions: “I’m too upset to do this”

This traps employees because when workers are consumed with negative emotions like anxiety, anger or depression, they won’t be motivated to carry out a task

How to help an employee out of this trap: Take the conversation to a place that you can’t be overheard and where the conversation is private. Tell the employee that you want to understand why they are upset and engage in active listening. It’s important not to weigh in with your opinion, and you shouldn’t agree nor disagree. Be nonjudgmental by asking what the employee believes is upsetting or angering them.

From there, you should summarise what they said to make sure you have understood. If they say no, apologise – let them know your listening and ask them to explain again. When people feel that they are understood, this softens the negative emotions. It may also be useful to tell them you want some time to consider what they have told you and book to revisit it the next day. This often helps the employee get more control over their emotions.

Keep in mind that anger is the belief that someone or something external to the employee has caused or will cause harm. Ask an employee to try and reframe their belief and suggest ways they could invest the effort to eliminate the threat. Depression sometimes results from employees’ belief that they are internally inadequate in some way that they cannot control. In this case, it helps to suggest that they aren’t inadequate, or broken, but they need to invest more effort in effective strategies – and ultimately, offer your help. Fearful or anxious employees often respond positively to assistance with their approach to the task as well as to reminders that they are capable and can succeed.

If the emotions do not soften with time and effort or if they spring from outside the workplace, it may be advisable to help the employee access counseling.

Attribution Errors: “I can’t understand what went wrong with this”

This trap ensnares employees as when they cannot accurately identify the reason for their struggles with a certain task, or when they attribute their problems with something beyond their control, they won’t be motivated to do it.

How to help an employee out of this motivation trap: Help the employee think clearly about the cause of their struggles with a task. Attribution errors are often to blame when employees seem to find an excuse for not carrying out a task (calling in sick, over commitment, or lacking in time). You should help the employee identify exactly why it seems insurmountable as this will help move past the procrastination.

If they identify a cause that’s out of their control, for example one of their flaws that is unfixable, suggest other causes that are under their control, like the need to apply a greater level of planning or a new strategy.

With each of these motivation traps, the trick is to apply more comprehensive thinking about what is stopping employees from applying mental effort and persisting with a task.

The research suggests that managers can do more to diagnose the motivation problems of employees. When motivation goes off the rails, identifying exactly which trap has caught your employees and applying the right-targeted strategy can get things going again.

If you are struggling working with or managing a team that doesn’t share your motivation – we’d love to hear from you for a confidential chat about other opportunities.

This article was pulled from a piece in the Harvard Business Review.