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How to handle a lack of motivation at work

May 7, 2021 - 22 min read

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What is motivation?

The challenge of lacking employee motivation and commitment

What causes a lack of motivation at work?

How can managers motivate their team members?

Lack of motivation case study

Collaboratively identify possible solutions

Unmotivated team members are a problem all leaders face at some point in their careers.

If you’ve got an unmotivated employee on your team, it can be frustrating both for you as a manager and for the unmotivated team member.

Perhaps you think all you need to do is make your teammates understand your vision or offer them more money to help them get motivated.

But the truth is that employee motivation problems are more complex than that. 

To get to the root of the issue, you must understand the psychology of motivation and learn to see your employee as a whole person, not just a colleague. Dive deep into their state of mind and find out what makes them tick.

This article will explain what motivation is, what motivates people at work, and what causes motivation problems.

It will also present a coaching example to inspire leaders to find the best way to manage unmotivated team members.

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What is motivation?

Human motivation consists of a combination of factors that drive a person’s behavior and actions in pursuit of a particular goal.

Motivation is a trait we all share as humans. But managers often make the mistake of thinking that if a person lacks motivation at work, they lack it in other areas too.

The fact is that motivation is always there — leaders just need to find the right way to tap into it.

One way of understanding the nature and value of motivation is through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, shown in the image below.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow argued all humans share a set of needs, which he classified in order of importance. 

Each person must start by fulfilling his or her most basic needs before progressing to the next level.

In the first place, it’s impossible to think about self-actualization if you don’t have enough food on the table or a roof over your head. You have to satisfy your survival needs before you can think about any higher needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is as follows: 

Physiological needs: these are the basic survival needs that all humans (and animals) share, such as food, shelter, and water. Without these, human needs aren't fulfilled.

Safety needs: we all need security in order to thrive. A safe, loving home environment, stable income, and the ability to freely and safely go outside your home are essential.

Social needs: humans evolved as social animals and still depend on one another to survive. That’s why community is so important, and loneliness is as dangerous for your health as smoking. 

Esteem needs: because we are social animals, the respect and recognition of others are important for us to feel fulfilled. Self-esteem and, more importantly, self-compassion are essential for motivation, too.

Self-actualization needs: when the four primary needs are met, you will be able to fulfill your self-actualization needs. This may include creative endeavors or giving back to your community.

The challenge of lacking employee motivation and commitment

If we all share the same needs, why is motivation different for everyone? 

Well, humans are complex beings, and while, in many ways, we are all similar, we are also unique. This means we are going to be different than our direct reports at work, supervisors, and co-workers.

Basic needs are food, shelter, health, and security. But the definition of basic needs is more personal as we move into the higher levels of the pyramid.

My requirements for love and belonging and my version of self-actualization look different from yours. 

What motivates me is likely to be different than what motivates you or your co-workers.

What motivates people at work?

Motivation is the why behind an action. If you’re thirsty, you drink a glass of water. The “why” behind your action is thirst.

There are two types of motivation: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. 

Extrinsic motivators can motivate some people. These motivators include financial rewards or contributing to a greater cause. But there is research that suggests that intrinsic motivators may be stronger than extrinsic ones.

Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic rewards are external motivators. Many employers think that extrinsic factors such as financial incentives motivate employees. This includes pay raises, bonuses, and benefits.

Extrinsic motivations are also associated with negative emotions, such as fearing reprimand.

Examples of extrinsic motivation include: 

  • Working extra hours to get a promotion or pay raise
  • Taking on extra tasks that you don’t have the capacity for to prevent your boss from yelling at you

How to use extrinsic rewards as a manager: Understand what motivates your team. Don’t make assumptions, as everyone’s motivators are different. Offer rewards, but sparingly. 

Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivators are the intangible psychological factors that drive people’s behavior.

Intrinsic rewards include: 

  • Engaging in meaningful work 
  • Having autonomy in their work 
  • Performing well
  • Having a sense of progress

These psychological benefits are rewards that help keep employees engaged and motivated.

A study on the effects of remote work on motivation levels found that employees were more motivated when given the autonomy to solve meaningful problems themselves.

statistics on a bar graph about a study on the effects of remote work

What causes a lack of motivation at work?

Lack of motivation is not the same as laziness. If a person lacks motivation at work, it doesn’t mean they are unmotivated in all aspects of life.

In fact, people are often more motivated by their hobbies and the activities they enjoy outside of work.

So, what’s causing motivation problems with your employees? There are many different factors in a person’s work and personal life that can affect their motivation.

Let’s take a look at a few possible causes.

Problems at work

Potential causes of a lack of motivation at work may include:

  • Poor management
  • Unclear objectives
  • Workplace conflict
  • Lack of stimulating tasks
  • Not feeling connected to the organization’s goals
  • Issues with their line manager
  • Lack of personal attention from management
  • Feelings of overwhelm
  • Lack of work-life balance
  • Achievement anxiety (fear of negative feedback)
  • Remote working (especially if they have no choice about where to work, as shown in the image below)
  • Not having a proper workspace

bar graph showing the effects of working and not working remotely

Personal problems

It’s common for an employee to be fired for bad performance, only for the manager to later discover that they were dealing with personal challenges that affected their motivation levels at work.

If you’re dealing with an unmotivated employee, remember the problem may stem from an issue outside of work.

Some potential personal problems that affect motivation include:

  • Burnout and exhaustion
  • Mental health issues
  • Short-term stress of taking on a new job
  • Dealing with the illness or death of a loved one
  • Physical illness
  • Contentment (being happy during the workday)
  • Lack of self-confidence
  • Distractions because of working from home

How can managers motivate their team members?

Many managers take the “tell-and-sell” approach to get employees to see their point of view or buy into a company's mission. They believe that if they can get team members to buy into their vision, it will increase employee motivation. 

But they don’t take into account the fact that we all have different motivators and thought processes. You can’t convince someone to see things your way if they have a different point of view. 

Instead of appealing to extrinsic motivators, you need to shift your focus to your teammate’s intrinsic motivation. You need to create a work environment that stimulates internal motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is different for everyone. Let’s take a look at an example of how a manager could uncover the source of their teammate’s motivation problem and help them overcome it.


Wasim is Ben’s manager. During their recent one-on-one, Wasim learned that Ben, a top performer, has been feeling uninspired and unmotivated. Ben explained he feels he’s no longer learning and growing in his role. This is causing demotivation.

Wasim probed to see if Ben wanted to to transition from an individual contributor to a people manager. Ben said he wasn’t interested in managing direct reports. He preferred being an individual contributor.

Wasim worries about losing Ben but isn’t sure how to keep him engaged when Ben isn’t interested in the traditional career path or job opportunities. How should he handle this motivation problem? 

Wasim is a smart manager; he knows the value of people and the importance of retaining top talent. 

His efforts to increase Ben’s satisfaction and motivation at work are right on the money. 

Research shows that when employees have motivation, it increases an organization’s productivity. This includes an increase in job satisfaction and success. It’s also beneficial for individual employees. 

Here’s an example. Engaged employees are healthier than their disengaged colleagues, which makes them more productive.

Employee engagement is good for both employees and companies.

But how do managers keep top talent, especially individual contributors? This is a challenge that most managers face at some point.

Employee motivation requires proactive attention and action. 

It’s good that Wasim knows that Ben is feeling uninspired. This knowledge enables him to address the situation before it’s too late. 

That Wasim and Ben discussed Ben’s lack of motivation at work indicates they have a transparent and trusting relationship. This is a strength Wasim can build on as he approaches the issue at hand. 

Wasim and Ben have a good relationship. But Wasim is also concerned that Ben is a flight risk. What should Wasim do now? 

As his coach, I would focus on three areas: coaching, using questions to understand the problem, and identifying possible solutions together.

Lack of motivation case study

People management is not one role; it’s a blend of elements. In some situations, managers need to direct. 

In others, they need to coach or support their teammates around their mindset. In others still, they need to delegate. The table below is based on Situational Leadership, a useful management and leadership tool

Though the table makes it look like these four managerial roles are distinct, they overlap in practice. 

Successful managers are constantly moving in and out of these roles based on the needs of individual employees.

table showing different managerial roles based on the needs of individual employees

If Wasim directs Ben in the current situation, he runs the risk of giving Ben a new assignment that Ben doesn’t want. This could make Ben lose incentive.

Wasim was wise not to assume Ben wanted to move into people management.

If Wasim supports or delegates this problem to Ben, he leaves Ben to figure out the issue on his own. This can be frustrating and demotivating for Ben, as he may feel a lack of motivation and support from Wasim. 

Wasim’s role in this situation is to coach Ben, because neither Wasim nor Ben completely understands the root cause of Ben’s unhappiness.

As his manager, Wasim’s job is to help Ben through this impasse. 

Ben is unfulfilled, but we don’t know the full story of his experience. If Wasim takes on the role of a coach, he can help Ben better understand his frustrations and help him find a solution.

In the coaching role, Ben is relieved of the responsibility of solving the problem on his own. Wasim’s job is to facilitate a meaningful conversation that helps both of them understand and solve the issue. 

A few coaching questions I would ask Wasim at this point are:

  • How do you see your role in relation to this issue?
  • How might seeing yourself in a coaching role, as opposed to a directing role, impact how you address this issue with Ben?
  • What are ways to better understand the issue?

Use questions to understand the problem

The purpose of these questions is to open up the issue so both manager and teammate can better understand Ben’s motivation. They can then address the problem together. 

Asking open-ended questions is a key coaching tool that will help Ben peel away the layers surrounding his issue. 

The purpose of these questions is to open up the issue so both manager and teammate can better understand Ben’s motivation problem and address it together.

To dig deeper, I would recommend asking the following open-ended questions:

  • What is contributing to Ben’s lack of inspiration?
  • What motivates Ben?
  • What is at the root of his current situation? 

When developing coaching questions, remember to keep them:

  • Simple — not multipart
  • Open-ended — can’t be answered with yes/no
  • Exploratory — will help the responder better understand something
  • Lacking an agenda — not an opinion or statement formatted into a question. Allow yourself and the responder to be surprised by the answer

 Asking questions is a two-part process: 

1) Ask yourself what you already know or think, and 

2) Engage your teammate in the discovery and solution process. 

Conduct your own thought process first. This will help your exploration with teammates. 

A few coaching questions I would ask Wasim at this point are:

  • What do you understand so far about Ben’s pain points?
  • What do you know about what interests and motivates Ben?
  • What have you noticed about Ben’s level of engagement over time?
  • What factors may have contributed to his lack of engagement?
  • What exploratory questions might you ask Ben?

Collaboratively identify possible solutions

Once Wasim and Ben understand the problem, they can brainstorm potential solutions. 

Here are some possibilities.

If Ben is motivated by growing in his technical area and feels limited by his current work: Wasim could encourage Ben and give him resources to develop a new project that would give him an opportunity to learn.

If Ben wants more visibility for his work: Wasim could develop a plan for Ben to present his work to internal or external leaders or lead a high-visibility project.

If Ben wants to have a greater impact: Wasim could identify opportunities for Ben to lead more strategic, company-wide projects. 

He could also organize a series of internal rotations within the organization. This would enable Ben to learn more and increase his ability to make an impact cross-functionally.

If helping others motivates Ben: Wasim could work with him to become a mentor to others in the department. 

Ben might be interested in people management, but worries he won’t succeed. 

If this turns out to be the case, Wasim could explore Ben’s disinterest more with questions such as:

  • What, if anything, would you enjoy about people management?
  • Do you have any worries about people management?
  • If you had support and training, would you want to take on one direct report?

 It’s always a good idea to check in on the logistics of work (e.g., office set-up, work hours) to align with your teammate’s preferences as much as possible. 

A good manager makes every effort to retain top talent but doesn’t limit a person’s opportunities by holding them too tight. 

This isn’t an exhaustive list of solutions, but an idea of how better understanding the root of the problem can lead to possible solutions. 

If Wasim spends time turning over every rock and nothing seems to be helping, he should ask Ben if he feels that his next career and life step is beyond the walls of this organization. 

A good manager makes every effort to retain top talent but doesn’t limit a person’s opportunities by holding them too tight.

Wrap up and reflect

In real estate, the saying is “location, location, location.” In management and leadership, it’s “follow-up, follow-up, follow-up.” 

Once Wasim and Ben have determined the root of the issue and decided on a solution (which may take several conversations), Wasim needs to take on the role of both coaching and supporting. 

He needs to provide regular follow-up and follow-through. This includes securing resources and opportunities as determined in the solution. Doing so will show Ben Wasim’s commitment to Ben’s satisfaction. 

Wasim should also continue to meet regularly with Ben to discuss how the new plan is going, what Ben is enjoying, what he needs, and what he is learning.

This information can be used to maintain Ben’s inspiration at work. 

What are the key takeaways from this scenario?

  • Keeping an eye out for top performers is a smart leadership guideline.
  • Managers (and leaders) need to be able to flex their style based on the person and the situation.
  • In real estate, the saying is “location, location, location.” In management and leadership, it’s “follow-up, follow-up, follow-up.” Once Wasim and Ben have invested in this discovery and solution process, it would be a waste to have it drop to the ground.

Lack of motivation goes way beyond money

Lack of motivation at work is a complex issue that requires a holistic approach, taking into account both extrinsic and intrinsic motivating factors, as well as problems outside the workplace.

While extrinsic motivators — such as financial rewards — are an important part of motivation at work, they are only part of the bigger picture.

The key for leaders is to tap into their employees’ intrinsic motivation by asking the right questions and getting to the root of the problem.

Discover how BetterUp Care can help improve your employees’ well-being and boost their motivation levels. New call-to-action

Published May 7, 2021

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