You’ve probably had conversations with managers about employees who weren’t performing well or meeting expectations. When you were having those discussions, did you find that managers were blaming their employees and saying things like, “They’re just lazy slackers” or, “They don’t really want to work”?
Although those statements may be true for some employees, they represent a small percentage of your workforce. Individual personalities and attitudes certainly contribute to a person’s demotivation; however, there are other possible explanations that leaders often overlook.
It is no surprise that these conversations about demotivated employees are common for leaders and human resources (HR) professionals. Gallup’s research has found that nearly 70% of U.S. workers are disengaged at work, with an annual cost of $450 billion to $550 billion due, in part, to decreased productivity and increased turnover. As you can imagine, employees who are demotivated are also likely to be disengaged at work. Given the financial implications, understanding what causes demotivation is important.
It is important to help leaders expand their understanding of demotivation so that they can move beyond blaming employees and examine how they can either prevent this problem from happening or deal with it effectively when they notice that valued employees are losing motivation. Our research has identified five sources of demotivation. Below is an explanation of the sources as well as actions that leaders can take to help their employees regain their lost motivation.
1. Individual Differences
Our personalities and attitudes make some people more likely to focus on positivity or motivation than others. Some of us are naturally upbeat, optimistic or open to new experiences, which help us face frustrations and maintain some level of motivation even in difficult situations. It’s not that we cannot become demotivated, but these positive traits can help us reframe negative situations and hold on to our motivation longer.
Other people have personality traits that cause them to be more skeptical, critical thinkers or perhaps more analytical and introverted. We may read their body language or hear their challenging questions and mistakenly decide that they are demotivated, or we may miss their body language cues when something is bothering them.
Since there are so many combinations of personality and attitude differences, it is easy to understand why leaders believe that all of the issues of demotivation fit into this category and then conclude that there is no role for the leader to play. However, leaders can do a lot by talking to employees about their motivation and how their needs are being met and by helping them match their personality preferences with their roles and responsibilities.
2. Workplace Stress
Although stress is a common part of work life, it is still important to recognize the impact it has on motivation. When people are highly motivated, they are likely to maximize their effort and their discretionary time toward the completion of an important task or project. This extra effort takes a toll on a person and is compounded when they face obstacles and uncertainty. The effect of workplace stressors is even more significant when they are outside of an employee’s control — for example, unexpected changes that impact a project or external forces (like a pandemic).
People who are highly motivated also tend to experience a “piling on” effect, in which they take on additional projects and more important tasks, because people know that they will do an excellent job. This situation can create burnout and can also feel like a punishment for high levels of motivation, which could then cause the employee to limit his or her motivation in the future. Managers can help employees reduce the negative impact of stressors by removing obstacles, pitching in to complete stressful tasks or checking in more frequently to show support.
3. Organizational Culture
There are many types of organizational cultures, which typically evolve over many years and are mostly influenced by the values and work habits of the executive leadership team. Some organizations are structured and rule-oriented, with clear systems and processes in place. This culture is not a great place for everyone to work but does match the preferred working style of some people. Some employees may find that a competitive culture with stretch goals, strong incentive systems and metrics to be a motivating place to work, while others may find this environment exhausting.
These examples are just a few types of organizational cultures, and the key is for leaders to understand the fit between the culture and the employee’s preferences. During the hiring and onboarding processes, employees may not recognize the elements of culture that are a great fit or a poor fit with their preferred approaches to work, but as they settle in to the role, they may experience a mismatch that leads to a loss of motivation.
4. Conflict Among Co-workers
Interpersonal interactions take energy, which can be motivating, even if there are challenges in learning how to work with people in your environment. It can also drain all of an employee’s energy, especially if there is conflict that is not handled in a productive and motivating way.
When two (or more) employees are struggling to work effectively together, it is demotivating for both of them, but it also takes a toll on everyone else in the team, creating a frustrating environment for everyone who works there. Leaders play a significant role in establishing a culture that encourages productive conflict, which produces satisfying outcomes in terms of creative solutions and effective group agreements.
5. Leadership Style
As the saying goes, “People don’t leave companies; they leave managers.” Nothing is more important to maintaining a productive and engaged workforce than the relationship employees have with their bosses. When we notice that an employee has lost his or her motivation, the first thing leaders should do is look in the mirror and check their own behaviors. Have they been supportive of the employee? Have they offered feedback, asked for input, helped him or her overcome obstacles or spent enough time engaged in conversation with the employee? It is important that leaders don’t rationalize their behavior and excuse themselves from these activities, because they are critical to the relationship that employees have with the organization. It is critical to their motivation.
There’s no panacea to cure employee demotivation, but there are concrete action steps that leaders can take to keep demotivation from creeping in or to repair it more quickly if employees fall into motivational slumps. While they may not be able to swiftly drive costs to $0, managers can take intentional steps that will enable companies to mitigate, and ultimately eliminate, the impact of the financial and human costs to the organization.