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7 Reasons Why Motivating Unproductive Employees Does Not Work

leave toxic jobs tips for managers Mar 10, 2019

Why You Shouldn't Motivate An Unproductive Employee

How many of you have run a business, or managed a team which included at least one unproductive employee? Maybe this person has been the bane of your work life, and not being able to depend on them causes you stress? Perhaps after hiring him, you may believe that they have lied about their experience on their CV or resume? 

One of the toughest situations many managers regularly face, especially if they've inherited their team, is dealing with an unproductive employee. Consequently, many managers erroneously believe that the problem is caused by the employee's lack of motivation: If they are not performing, perhaps they need to be motivated. But this is rarely the case, as motivation is simply like placing a bandaid on a gaping wound. It doesn't address the underlying culture issues. 

When they find out inevitably that motivation and listening to them does not work, that's when managers often contact HR to help them document the underperformance so the employee can be terminated. Sadly, this approach, however common, does not get to the real cause of the underperformance, and thus the manager continues to be encountered with this same problem. The root of this problem is addressed within these 7 points.  

Here are 7 reasons why motivating unproductive employees does not work (and the secrets managers need to know which do work):



1.  You think you understand what motivates them.

When noticing an employee has started to underperform, many managers puff up their ego and think that it has nothing to do with them. They may go over to the employee and tell them that they have been underperforming and what the expectations are, or they may google good motivation techniques to use on the said employee. 

As an employee, how does it feel when your manager tells you that you are not meeting expectations? Does it make you feel that you are not good enough? 

Using a motivation technique on an employee (especially one that you have googled or god forbid received from HR) is like using a band-aid to cover a gaping wound because it's only a temporary solution to a more overarching problem: You. 

If an employee is underperforming, it is not the employee who is at fault. It is the manager. A manager simply gives orders. A leader takes care of their team. What if underperformance is not the employee's fault but the leader who has not taken care of the team and given them what they need to perform well? 

Every person is different, and just because one formula works with one, does not mean it will work with another.  But if you take care of your team, they will take care of you. 


2. You get angry at them (fear-based motivation).

In my work, I've seen many managers yell at their employees, sometimes in front of others, when they do not perform as expected. This is apparently being treated as normal in most organizations. 

Not only is this scarring on the self-esteem and can produce significant emotional trauma if the humiliation occurs is done in front of others but also it does it solve the underperformance issue. 

Managers who believe that motivating their employees through fear exhibit an older form of managerial style, called title leadership. Just because someone has a title, they believe they should be followed, and by instilling fear in the team, the team should be motivated to avoid this humiliation by performing well. 

This may work to some extent, but ultimately it results in 3 things: 
(1) The employee leaves
(2) The employee only follows your orders when you are around
(3) You instill emotional trauma in a person, who then uses this pain to instill it in others, creating a darker world.
Praise in public, give constructive feedback in private.  Praise is the thing that is lacking in most offices today. Praise and appreciation are free, yet shows employees that you value their time and efforts. They don't have to be working for you. They could be working for someone else (or themselves). So make them feel appreciated for what they do and what they give. People who are appreciated for their work often give 10x more than when they are not. Praise is great for productivity. 

On the other hand, criticism, especially public criticism, is detrimental to productivity. Imagine how you felt the last time your boss yelled at you in public (if you have not experienced this, you are lucky indeed). Your stomach tied in knots, and it felt like you were punched in the heart. Maybe you felt numb for a few days. And most likely, you lost trust for your manager and subconsciously began to see them as the enemy. Not exactly the best way to encourage productivity. In fact, it does the opposite.

The more you yell at your employees, the more they tend to underperform.


3. You believe it's simply a matter of knowing how to do it.  

Most managers assume that the only reason an employee does not perform is that they don't know how to do something. So the manager takes steps to explain the process and believe everything will turn out as expected.

They are shocked when often the work product does not turn out as expected or doesn't even seem to incorporate what they said. The reason for this is twofold:
(1) You have not explained WHY it must be done this way 
(2) You have not explained HOW it fits in our overall goals 

As managers or leaders, you must always relate each project to "us", "our goals" and how we are "one team." Humans are innately self-referencing, meaning they relate to others and things comparing it to themselves, and they will not have an intrinsic motivation to do something until they know how it relates to them, and they know why it relates to them. Additionally, humans are driven by emotion, and if the "WHY" is compelling enough to them, and they understand it, they will carry out the task with no problem.

So always make sure to explain why and how it relates to them, in addition to solutions in these other steps. Bonus points if they "WHY" is linked to an emotional response. 


4.  You believe the employee is an idiot or lazy. 

Have you ever had an employee turn in a deliverable that seemed to be copied & pasted from an old version or some video that looked very carelessly made? You might have assumed the employee was lazy and just copying last year's work to get it done quickly. Or maybe you thought they were an idiot for not telling you that they didn't have time to create a miraculous video.

Perhaps in some cases that is true, however in our decades of work experience, we have yet to see a true case of this. The real reason is that people were not taught to start working on a project and check in with their manager periodically to make sure the project is done right. 

You see in school, we are given an assignment or test, then we must turn it in at a due date. We are not encouraged to work together, or to come to the teacher with help on it, or else it would be construed as giving extra information which is unfair to the others. Some teachers end up announcing to the class this information so that others can be on the same playing field, but most simply tell the student to work on it themselves, leaving the student bewildered and discouraged. 

That is why most people in careers do not check in with their boss periodically when doing an assignment. They are given a due date, and they try their best, then turn it in on the due date. Then they are surprised when their boss blows up at them. After all, they tried their best? Even if they copied and pasted, likely they assumed it was all that was needed to be done and they were trying to be the most efficient they can in order to save energy for other projects. 

Most managers try to motivate the employee who does not turn in the appropriate deliverable by simply telling them what they want and think that their job is over. The truth is that they have to teach employees to check in with their managers during the entire stage of any project. At first, check in (non-intrusively) to see how the project is going and to provide guidance.  

Most people do not know they are supposed to -- and are allowed to -- show their boss or leader what they have done so far and if they are on the right track. Encourage open communication so that they can ask their most "stupid" questions without any threat of humiliation. 

Have a culture that teaches and encourages people to regularly check in with their boss on deliverables. This ensures a more "team-based" culture as the boss and employee work more as a team to get it done, rather than the old-world hierarchical structure where people are afraid to approach the higher-ups. 

The highest manager in the company is no better than the lowest employee. 


5. The employee suffers "analysis paralysis".

For the same reason explained above, we were socialised at a young age to complete a project independently before turning it in to be evaluated. Sometimes, managers may encounter employees who try to get everything perfect before starting on something, or dig deep into massive amounts of information before they are comfortable to start. These employees were most likely very intelligent A-students when they were younger. 

These employees expect to be rewarded for their late nights spent analysing things, and instead, are often woken up to an angry manager telling them that nothing they did was correct. Ouch. Where once they were rewarded for hard work in school, now they are humiliated and seen to be a failure in the eyes of an authority figure -- something they have probably tried hard to avoid as a child. Old childhood wounds are opened. 

Many managers at this stage try to "motivate" an employee by rushing them to go faster and to "encourage" them to start now and just get it done. However, for these certainty driven types of people, rushing and pressure work quite the opposite.

Since this type of employee was often rewarded for perfection and uses perfection as an excuse to not put themselves out there, it's imperative to create an environment where failure is accepted as a learning experience and even celebrated. Hear me out. Every time someone fails, instead of feeling bad, why not celebrate that they have noticed their prior reaction of fear and avoidance and turned it into something empowering -- a learning experience. This change of behavior is what needs to be celebrated. 

Additionally, employees of this type need to be encouraged to "just do something" or "take some action -- any action" rather than waiting and gathering more information. Provide the space for them to fail and just start... they will find that when they take the next step, the next and the next will become clear, and soon they will have a better work output than they ever would have created through the false lense of perfection.

It's important to note that most people were not taught to take action or any step they can toward their goal. Most of the time we were conditioned to only move forward if it's perfect, or get chastised. Understand that your employees who have learned this way need to be shown that it's safe to take a small step at a time and that things do not have to be perfect. 


6.  The employee is afraid to fail (and that you won't like him).

This ties into the previous example of the employee who gathers more and more information before starting a project. Many times, employees are paralysed by the idea of failure, that they do not start and do not ask what they want. The primary question they are asking themselves is "what if I'm not good enough? And if I'm not good enough, I won't be loved."  

This is a large psychological issue in and of itself, but managers are not expected to cure this. The primary fear of most people is that they will fail, and if they do, they won't be enough. And if they are not enough, they won't be loved. Managers and leaders can heal this by creating an environment of complete acceptance of the person as they are. If they live in Boulder and don't like yoga, don't make them weird! If they say something they feel was stupid, laugh and reply back! Don't turn the cold shoulder on them. Let them be who they are. Because when people have the courage to be authentic, it creates the space for others to be authentic as well. 

When managers and leaders create a culture where all teammates feel loved and appreciated, and that failure is not punished but a lesson to learn in order to be better, then it heals the entire human race because that innate fear in all of us that we are not enough slowly becomes unfamiliar. 


7.  The employee is not a culture fit.

There is a saying that in order to be your greatest version, you must surround yourself with those you want to become. Surround yourself with those on the same mission as you. The reality is that most people were not taught this lesson, and may not have the self-awareness to intuitively know it. Other reasons could be that the person simply needed a job to produce income, and took anyone that was open, even if the team and the culture did not resonate with them. This results in, for example, an extremely collaborative person working in a highly competitive team or company.

Having worked in HR I know that culture is the most important indicator of the success of a company or a team. For a team to work best, they have to naturally play by the unwritten rules of the organization.  The unwritten rules are the culture.  If you are in a culture that does not match who you are, that's going to cause you to be inauthentic. And as we teach in our courses at Empath In The Office, being inauthentic takes energy away from us that we could be using to live a life that suits us, or to become the best we can be. 

If you or someone on your team is not a culture fit, the best thing to do is bring the contrast of an idea a perfect culture fit to that person in hopes that they will realise that it is in their capability to find that fit. And both the manager and employee will be happier for it. 

This also comes down to the hiring decisions of the company. This topic is out of the scope of this discussion and should be fully explained in another blog entry or even a book, but the most essential hiring factor should be culture fit -- for the reason that authentic people perform better, work from their heart, and create better examples than inauthentic people. 


Although most managers believe the problem of an underperforming or unproductive employee lies within the employee themselves, the truth is that if an employee is underperforming, it is the manager's responsibility to ensure the environment is conducive to authenticity, growing and contributing, as well as consciously teaching their teammates the habits of success. If the employee is not a culture fit, even if they are a top performer, they will be toxic to the culture and team. 

Authenticity and culture are extremely important. Culture emanates first from the leaders, and it is the leader's job to provide an example of what is expected and make sure their team is taken care of. When you take care of your team and provide the right culture to thrive, they will take care of you. Only until the manager truly becomes a leader, they will always be faced with underperforming employees.  

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