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4 Reasons Good Employees Lose Their Motivation

By: Richard E. Clark and Bror Saxberg


Motivation — the willingness to get the job done by starting rather than procrastinating, persisting in the face of distractions, and investing enough mental effort to succeed — accounts for 40% of the success of team projects. Yet managers are often at a loss as to how to effectively motivate uninspired employees. Our review of research on motivationindicates that the key is for managers to first accurately identify the reason for an employee’s lack of motivation and then apply a targeted strategy.

Carefully assessing the nature of the motivational failure — before taking action — is crucial. Applying the wrong strategy (say, urging an employee to work harder, when the reason is that they’re convinced they can’t do it) can actually backfire, causing motivation to falter further.

These reasons fall into four categories — a quartet we call the motivation traps. Namely, they are 1) values mismatch, 2) lack of self-efficacy, 3) disruptive emotions, and 4) attribution errors. Each of these four traps has distinct causes and comes with specific strategies to release an employee from its clutches.

Here are the four motivation traps and each targeted strategy to help your employees escape them:

Trap 1, Values Mismatch: I don’t care enough to do this.

How this trap ensnares employees: When a task doesn’t connect with or contribute to something workers value, they won’t be motivated to do it.

How to help an employee out of this trap: Find out what the employee cares about and connect it to the task. Too often, managers think about what motivates themselves and assume the same is true of their employees. Engage in probing conversation and perspective-taking to identify what your employee cares about and how that value links with the task.

There are different types of value which you can draw out. One is interest value, or how intellectually compelling a task is. For this, find connections between the task and the things that the employee finds intrinsically interesting. Another is identity value, or how central the skill set demanded by a task is to an employee’s self-conception. Point out how the job at hand draws on a capacity that they consider an important part of their identity or role — such as engaging in teamwork, analytical problem solving or working under pressure.

Importance value is how important a task is. Identify ways to highlight how crucial the task is to achieve the team’s or company’s mission. Finally, utility value is a measure of the cost of achieving (and avoiding) the task versus the larger benefits of achieving. Find ways to show how completing this particular task contributes to the employee’s larger goals and avoids blowback. Sometimes it may be necessary to ask an employee to, essentially, hold their nose while carrying out an undesirable task — making clear to them the future benefit its completion will yield or the problems it will prevent.

When an employee doesn’t value a task at the outset and the values mismatch may not be apparent, a manager’s best bet is to try to appeal to multiple values. One or more of them may resonate with the employee.


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