Motivating the UnMotivated


Leaders can’t lead if no one is there to follow.

I’m sure we can all remember a time either at work or home when we needed extra people to get the job done, but they weren’t around to help. Whether it was building a deck at the house, or getting help moving into that house, sometimes getting people to help seems like an insurmountable task. Even worse is when you are at work and serve in a leadership role and the people being paid to be there won’t even step up to the plate of doing what’s needed at work.

How is a leader supposed to create motivation in someone who isn’t motivated to do the task at hand? Studies have found that extrinsic motivation doesn’t create lasting commitment to performance. In other words, if you are pushing motivation onto someone, it may have short-term effects, but it won’t last. This is, in large part, why great leaders know that positive reinforcement of good performance is one of the best ways to maintain a lasting, committed workforce.

How do you get people to do what they may not want to do though? Sometimes we need to encourage that wayward staff member to step up their commitment and increase their performance. Maybe you even need to sell them on a new idea or task that wasn’t part of their original job description but is necessary for the forward momentum of your agency.

Sure, you can command them to do it, update their job description, and threaten to replace them if they don’t comply, but experience has taught us that fear based leadership and poor management are not how you provide consistent quality performance.

The way you are going to motivate people to greatness is to create an intrinsic desire in them for the task. In leadership theory, we call this transformational leadership. It is a style of leadership that has become widely popular in the last few decades because it is proven effective in improving motivation and morale.

The basic idea of transformational leadership is to create intrinsic motivation in people by transforming the way they view the work. One of the most common ways of doing this is to get your people to buy into what you’re trying to accomplish. In non-profit agencies this is accomplished through the mission of the organization. At the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, for instance, our mission statement says that we strive to lessen the poverty and despair among the homeless in the city of Chattanooga, TN and to restore dignity and self-reliance to those we serve, and we do this by serving the physical, social and spiritual needs of the homeless and less fortunate without expectation of recompense, but out of love and compassion for mankind.

We hire and motivate people toward their job duties based on our mission statement. If someone isn’t performing up to par, we remind them that their performance directly impacts the people we serve. Sometimes poor performance in our work is the difference between someone sleeping under a bridge or in a home. By that standard, sometimes our performance is a matter of life and death. Other non-profit agencies are just as committed to their target audience or cause and the people who work for them also find intrinsic motivation from their mission.

For-profit companies are able to accomplish the same thing. They have a mission to provide a service to their community, and they want to make a profit while they do that. That mission might be to provide quality food, exciting entertainment, or the lowest priced airfare. Whatever the mission, the work is motivated through that mission, and decisions are also filtered through that mission.

When you are faced with staff who aren’t motivated to do what is needed, remind them of the mission. Transform their desire to be there from a paycheck to an impact. You don’t have to convince them to change the world, but remind them that they are part of something bigger than themselves because of what they do. Show them how a Jenga® tower is less stable when even one block is removed. Use the old ice-breaker game to show how the other pieces are stressed as even one piece falls away. They are that one piece that is valuable, that reduces the stress others feel when they are performing well.

Motivate people from the inside by showing them the meta-narrative you are writing as a leader. One of the department heads who works under me told me recently that he was more motivated to do the work I asked of him because I would tell him what that task was accomplishing for on a larger scale. One of my direct reports likes to ask people in interviews about how they will handle the weight of knowing that if they fail to perform an empty apartment may stay empty while someone else is sleeping on the streets. These may seem like guilt-driven tactics, but they are always presented in a way that reminds them we are serving real people, and that is how we call people to action.