How To Motivate The Unmotivated [5 Strategies]

How To Motivate The Unmotivated

Motivation can vary wildly on a team. At any given time, a few people might be highly motivated, while others are totally unmotivated. Ideally, there are times where everyone is motivated at once, but sadly there may be times when everyone is demotivated or burnt out. All this means that an inescapable part of a leader’s job is to motivate the unmotivated.

The good news is that leaders don’t have to rely on raw charisma or the inspirational words of a halftime speech from insert-your-favorite-sports-movie-here. Instead, motivation is less about the qualities of the leader and more about understanding the needs of the team and of each individual on the team.

In this article, we’ll outline five ways to motivate the unmotivated.

1. Change Up Tasks

The first way to motivate the unmotivated is to change up tasks. Novelty can be a powerful motivator, and the lack of novelty in a job can be demotivating. Few people get excited about coming to work and repeating the same few tasks over and over again. People want new experiences and new challenges. They want to feel that they’re making progress and they often judge that progress based on the projects they’re being given and whether those projects require them to learn new skills or merely execute the same routine functions.

As a leader, this means examining the task list of your motivated team members. Are they doing the same old over again or are they being given new, growth-inducing tasks and projects to work on. You may not be able to change their job description, but you can help them find new learning opportunities or ask them to sit in on meetings they’re not regularly a part of. Even a little novelty can go a long way toward restoring motivation.

2. Build New Bonds

The second way to motivate the unmotivated is to build new bonds. Over four decades of research have made a compelling case that relatedness is an essential element of intrinsic motivation. People want to feel cared for and feel that their work cares for others. They want to feel connected to the people their work serves and the people they work alongside. And if they feel disconnected or isolated from the team or the customers/stakeholders of an organization, they can become unmotivated.

As a leader, there are two ways to utilize relatedness to motivate the unmotivated. The first is to make sure team members feel connected to each other, most often by making time for socialization and connection through nonwork discussions. (The second we’ll cover in a moment.) It may seem like a waste of time, but social fucntions, icebreakers, or any other activities where people talk about their lives outside of work create opportunities for stronger connections to form. And there’s a strong connection between social connection and motivation.

3. Reframe The Work

The third way to motivate the unmotivated is to reframe the work. As discussed above, knowing how your work serves others can be a powerful motivator. But for many jobs, teams are so far removed from the end customers or even from other teams who benefit from their work that they lose sight of how their work makes a difference. Their work loses task significance, and their motivation quickly follows. And the larger the organization, the harder it is to keep task significance.

As a leader, restoring task significance and relatedness requires reframing the work or rebuilding connections to those who benefit directly from your team’s work. This could be by bringing customers in to meet your team, or by sharing thank you notes or stories of how the team’s tasks enabled others to work or live better. The test for whether your team needs a reframe is how quickly they can answer the question “Who is served by the work that we do?” And if they can’t find an answer fast, they likely can’t find their motivation either.

4. Provide More Feedback

The fourth way to motivate the unmotivated is to provide more feedback. Ken Blanchard was right, “feedback is the breakfast of champions.” We already covered how a feeling of growth and development contributes to motivation. But without regular feedback, your people don’t know what to improve upon—or if they’re improving. As well intentioned as annual reviews are, they are not a sufficient source of feedback to keep people motivated to improve. Instead, try regular check-ins and feedback sessions both individually and as a team.

As a leader, it’s important to note the distinction between providing sufficient feedback and becoming a micromanager. As people grow and develop in their role, feedback should shift from telling people how to do specific tasks and towards coaching them to solve problems they’re already equipped to solve. In the beginning, provide feedback to help them grow. But as they develop, provide feedback that helps them notice their growth.

5. Watch The Stress

The fifth way to motivate the unmotivated is to watch the stress. Most leaders know that too much stress can demotivate anyone. But too little stress can be demotivating as well. Psychologist have long known about a concept called eustress—the sweet spot of stress where the demands of the moment match their ability and capacity. Too much demand leads to distress and burnout, but too little demand leads to boredom and…burnout.

As a leader, watching the stress means monitoring your team’s capacity so that they don’t get overloaded. In which case, you’ll want to find ways to offload certain projects or otherwise reduce the workload. But it also means watching each individual on your team for signs that they’re not being challenged enough. In which case, you’ll want to consider other methods in this article for ways to help them feel more growth and challenge in their work. In either case, the goal is to continue to make adjustments and continue to watch the stress, to bring it back to that eustress level.

And monitoring and making adjustments is really the ideal for each of these methods to motivate the unmotivated. Because motivation is individual. It’s felt on an individual level. Which means increasing motivation requires knowing each person individually and continuing to monitor their motivation levels for individual adjustments that need to be made. But when you do, it will raise the overall motivation on your team, and raise the level of performance until everyone on the team can do their best work ever.





About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

2 thoughts on “How To Motivate The Unmotivated [5 Strategies]”

  1. I wonder what references were used to write this article. Can you please provide them, or are these all original ideas?

    Thank you.

    1. Research on Novelty is from Francesca Gino…Bonds and Feedback from self-determination theory…Reframe comes from Wrzesniewski and Dutton’s “job crafting”…and Eustress is a well known concept with many researchers.

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