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Influencer QA

Motivating Others to Take Action

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have two employees who are categorized as management yet they do not have any direct reports nor do their job descriptions indicate any responsibilities specific to management. Because it is a large company, I am unable to modify the job classification.

I would like to delegate increased responsibility to their role, but there is also an issue of trust. These two employees do not have the desire to grow as leaders. They are content with working their eight hours a day and going home. As much as I try to help them develop, they just aren’t interested.

Do you have any suggestions for motivating or developing managers?

Motivated Manager

Dear Motivated,

Thanks for describing an interesting influence challenge that many managers face. Organizations ask managers to develop their people, and the workload makes it important for people to take on larger roles, but some employees seem comfortably stuck in their status quo.

Or maybe you’re a mom or dad whose son or daughter is comfortably stuck in the status quo—or whatever you call their basement bedroom. You want your child to launch a career, but he or she doesn’t seem interested in doing what it takes.

How do you get a person who is comfortably stuck to take action?

Avoid the fundamental attribution error. When people are stuck, we have a strong tendency to blame their personal motivation. More often than not, we describe them as lacking character, willpower, grit, or determination. This bias is so strong that psychologists call it the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” However, when a person is stuck—even comfortably stuck—there is usually a lot more going on than simple laziness.

I’m not saying the employees you described aren’t lacking personal motivation. I think you described their poor initiative quite well; however, there is a good chance that personal motivation is not their only problem—it’s just the most obvious one.

Diagnose all six sources. When people are stuck, it’s usually because all Six Sources of Influence are working in combination to hold them fast. Their world is perfectly organized to create the behavior (or lack of behavior) you are currently seeing. Here are the questions we use to diagnose obstacles in all six sources:

Personal Motivation. Left in a room by themselves, would they want to take on greater responsibilities? Would they enjoy it, find it meaningful, and aspire to it as an important part of their identity? Would they take pride in it, or see it as a moral imperative? Ideas for action:

  • Invite choice. As part of the performance-management process, ask each employee to prepare a two- to three-year plan. Ask them to identify the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) your organization and your department face. Then have them anticipate how they see your department and their jobs changing in order to take advantage of these SWOTs. Finally, have them describe what they would like to be doing in two or three years and what they need to do now in order to prepare themselves.
  • Try small steps. Identify the crucial moments when it would be most helpful for your employees to step up to greater responsibilities. Think of times, places, and circumstances when you could really use their help in a particular way for a short period of time. It will be most effective if you can include them in finding these crucial moments. People are more trusting when they discover crucial moments for themselves. Then ask for their help during these brief and occasional crucial moments.

Personal Ability. Left in a room by themselves would they have all the skills they need to feel confident taking on greater responsibilities? Do they already have the right knowledge, skill sets, experiences, training, and strength? Ideas for action:

  • Training that focuses on critical dependencies. Ask your reluctant employees to identify skill sets that are new, are becoming more important, or are in short supply. These skills would make a person indispensable. If they aren’t quick to identify these skills, work with them to identify the people in your organization who could help and ask your employees to interview them.
  • Training that fills in missing skills. Suppose your reluctant employees did accept a greater role, what parts of an expanded job would they find most difficult, tedious, or noxious? How could you skill them up so they’d be confident, efficient, and effective in these areas? We often say, “If it’s taking too much will, add some more skill!” Maybe an ounce of skill will yield another pound of motivation.

Social Motivation. Are the right people encouraging them to take on greater responsibilities? Do the peers they respect, the managers they look up to, and their family members encourage or discourage them from stepping up? Ideas for action:

  • Get them some feedback. Do they know how others see them? Most of us want to believe we are doing our fair share. Motivate change by using a 360-degree feedback tool to get feedback from their peers and customers. Make it clear that the feedback is for development—not evaluation—purposes and make sure you have solutions for whatever negative feedback they receive. Otherwise, this kind of feedback can be more demoralizing than motivating.
  • Connect them with a greater purpose. Get them involved in field trips where they meet with their internal or external customers. Make the connection as personal as possible. Have them report to your team on what they learned and on how your team can improve.

Social Ability. If your employees take on greater responsibilities, are the people around them ready to lend a hand? Do they have mentors, trainers, and peers who can give advice and step in to help? Ideas for action:

  • Make them coaches. Sometimes people step up when they become responsible for someone else’s success. Consider assigning them to work with another person in your group.

Structural Motivation. Does your organization provide incentives such as performance reviews, pay, promotions, and perks that could motivate these employees to take on greater responsibilities? Your employees’ job descriptions don’t include management activities so it’s hard to use the formal reward system, but there may be other routes to explore. Ideas for action:

  • Recognize incremental improvements. Try small assignments, projects that can be completed within a week, and then give your honest, heartfelt appreciation when they complete them. Then gradually increase the number, size, duration, and importance of these projects. Continue to show your appreciation as you deem appropriate.

Structural Ability. Is there a way to use the environment, data, tools, cues, or systems to make it easier and more convenient for these people to take on greater responsibilities? Ideas for action:

  • Discover and remove obstacles. Ask yourself (or your reluctant employees), “If you wanted to take on a few additional responsibilities, what are the biggest obstacles you would face?” One good guess would be time. If nothing else about their jobs changed, they would have to work longer, harder days. How could you change that? What could you take off their plates so they would have more time for higher-value work? Showing your flexibility may encourage them to become more flexible as well.

I hope these ideas help you generate more strategies tailored to your exact situation. Notice all these ideas involve an investment of time, energy, and thought on your part. It would be easier to write off the employees as unmotivated slugs, but that would mean abdicating your own responsibilities as a manager. It would also be a very costly write-off, since they are likely to remain on your payroll.

Whether you’re dealing with reluctant employees or a child who is still living in your basement, never lose faith! When you marshal the power of all Six Sources of Influence, you can truly change anything.

David

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David Maxfield

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. David’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.
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13 thoughts on “Motivating Others to Take Action”

  1. How do you deal with peers that just don’t seem to get it? No matter how much training, coaching, mentoring they receive, they still struggle to do the job.
    This is known by our manager, and others in leadership positions. My other peers are tired of always holding their hands.

  2. @John

    Quit holding their hands. If management and others in leadership positions are aware but action isn’t implemented then maybe the standards that aren’t being performed isn’t important to the company’s vision. Sadly “holding their hands” is an enabling handicap that doesn’t help the situation. I know, easier said than done – especially when the person who’s not performing hinders your contribution of the process.

    I struggle with your topic often in my place of employment. One of my managers actually told me they were willing to have a less-performing-dedicated staff versus keeping the position open and causing the rest of the team to be stretched further. Maybe your managers are willing to have a less-than-at-level staff member to avoid more workload added to the rest of you.

  3. I think you are missing something here. There are people who are truly content doing what they do. No everyone aspires to be in a management position. While I agree that the job classification should be changed if they truly are not “managers”, I do not agree that these people lack motivation. If they are doing a good job, but simply want to put in their eight hours and be done, then so be it. There’s something to be said for not being tied to a job and having a life outside of work. Do not assume that everyone wants to climb the ladder.

  4. Hi John, What a timely question! We are running a survey related to that very issue in today’s newsletter. We’re calling Do you know how to handle a slacking co-worker? We want to see how prevalent the problem is, and how people typically handle it.
    Since the problem is recurring, use the CPR skill (Content, Pattern, Relationship) to decide what to address. When you move from Content to Pattern or from Pattern to Relationship, you are escalating the problem. For example, let’s assume that the problem is that your peer fails to keep a commitment related to a deadline. The Content is, “You committed to get me your part by end of day yesterday. I still haven’t seen it.” Pattern is, “There have been several times over the past month when you made a commitment to me–a promise–and then failed to live up to your word.” Relationship is, “When you make commitments and fail to follow up on them, I wonder whether I can trust you.” Notice how these different ways of framing the problem highlight increasingly severe consequences.

  5. Hi, John! In motivating others to take action, I see in your comments related to Structure that you briefly mentioned time. I’d like to address time in a little more detail.
    I think that in today’s environment, perhaps good time management might be more productive than simply looking at what to reassign an employee to if that employee doesn’t seem to have enough time to do everything you’d like. Perhaps the employee simply doesn’t understand good time management, or doesn’t have good time management skills. Could time management be something the company culture could utilize to further enhance not only certain employees’ contributions, but also the entire company?
    (Going further, I believe that time management and money management can be handled similarly, as well, but that’s a whole new subject.)

  6. I completely agree with Ann and it was the first thing that came to my mind. If these people are happy/content putting in a full days work and they are doing well in that aspect, then why assume that they need to do more? Life is much more than one’s job. Perhaps they realize this. Perhaps something can be learned from them.

    By the way, I am one of those people who has no aspiration to be in a management position. I have spent literally years of my life volunteering and taking a “break” from traditially professional life (like joining the Peace Corps). Most people say to me, “I wish I had done that…”

    Ann said “I think you are missing something here. There are people who are truly content doing what they do. No everyone aspires to be in a management position. While I agree that the job classification should be changed if they truly are not “managers”, I do not agree that these people lack motivation. If they are doing a good job, but simply want to put in their eight hours and be done, then so be it. There’s something to be said for not being tied to a job and having a life outside of work. Do not assume that everyone wants to climb the ladder”

  7. Elijah :I completely agree with Ann and it was the first thing that came to my mind. If these people are happy/content putting in a full days work and they are doing well in that aspect, then why assume that they need to do more? Life is much more than one’s job. Perhaps they realize this. Perhaps something can be learned from them.
    By the way, I am one of those people who has no aspiration to be in a management position. I have spent literally years of my life volunteering and taking a “break” from traditially professional life (like joining the Peace Corps). Most people say to me, “I wish I had done that…”
    Ann said “I think you are missing something here. There are people who are truly content doing what they do. No everyone aspires to be in a management position. While I agree that the job classification should be changed if they truly are not “managers”, I do not agree that these people lack motivation. If they are doing a good job, but simply want to put in their eight hours and be done, then so be it. There’s something to be said for not being tied to a job and having a life outside of work. Do not assume that everyone wants to climb the ladder”

    Add another vote of agreement with Ann and Elijah. Why is it wrong to not want to climb the ladder? If they like what they are doing, work hard at it, and are loyal, I’d say the company has a valuable asset: a happy employee who likes his/her work, gets the job done and is unlikely to jump ship to get a “better” position somewhere else. They should be made to feel appreciated, not like there’s something wrong with them. It saves the company a lot of money if they don’t have to keep hiring/training replacements.
    I am 67, and my career is essentially over. I was raised to believe that hard work and loyalty would make for a good career. In today’s world, that’s a crock – loyalty apparently means nothing. I was in middle management in multiple companies over the years, great reviews, and quite happy. No aspirations to be in upper or top management. And yet I was made to feel that I was not a “player” – that I wasn’t playing the game I should be. In three cases, when the companies “reorganized”, I was left out in the cold – along with many other loyal emplyees. In case it doesn’t show, that has left me somewhat bitter toward previous employers, although given the chance to start over, I’d do the same thing. As another writer pointed out, there is much more to life than work.

  8. I liked all the ideas you mentioned regarding motivating others & helping them tackle new responsibilities once they want it & are ready for it.

    Thanks.

  9. I find myself completly baffled by both the question, which implies these people are working well and are maintaining healthy boundaries around their working hours. And yet there is the implication of blame and ‘should’ about their doing more. It says clearly “They are content with working their eight hours a day and going home”, and their is no mention of deliquency during their working days.
    In IT, and many other areas with specialist skills, it is common practice for people to be given management classifications without being expected to manage staff. In fact, the nature of their specialities often means that they do not have, or desire, the skills that managing staff would require them to acquire.
    And yet the answer also blames them and implies negligence and neglect of duties. It automatically agrees that these people ‘should’ be working longer hours than they are paid to work. If there is fault, it is with a corporate blindness to a person’s right to choose themselves and be an individual rather than a corporate drone.
    These people are doing the job they are being paid to do, and working the hours they are being paid to work. Given how many companies tend to treat staff like resources (printers, paper, consumables, etc) instead of people, I think these people are being exceptionally wise and self-caring. Thay are also probably caring more for their families and those who deserve their time, and loyalty; simply because they are not also dealing with unhealthy stress, exhaustion and the lack of physical and emotional health these can bring.

  10. I must agree with others. Some people are happy where they are.

    I would also suggest that, before you deride their lack of growth or advancement in the company you should look beyond what is happening at work. Are they coping with personal issues at home? Are they going to school or trying to learn a new skill? Perhaps “status quo” is what they need from their work life.

    If you look at my career over the past few years some may think I am stagnant and perhaps lazy. If you look beyond work you would see that my wife and I spent years struggling with physical and emotional pains of infertility followed by moving on to become trained and certified foster parents. We now have our first placement which brings new and exciting challenges. Foster children require all of the investment of regular children plus a whole lot more…. there are doctors, and therapy, and court, and inspections, and visits, etc. They have real issues and justified fears. Having a stable predictable work schedule in a job with no pressure to advance is a blessing amid the chaos.

    As for the title… Perhaps it is because of pay scales. Perhaps there is not a pay bracket lower than “manager” that would fit their rate. I know when my company (a rather large company) bought up a smaller company in a slightly different field of engineering we had to bring their newly hired (level 1) technicians in at level 4 because the pay rate in their industry was higher than ours. It wasn’t about skills or experience, it was about accounting. In this case we must set our expectations of them based on who they are not what their title is.

  11. Many of the ideas seem sound, but I have to oppose the idea of making these employees “better” by making them coaches. The role of coach is key in the development of others, and if they can’t (or don’t want to) develop further themselves, it doesn’t make much sense to me that you’d put them in that role.

    I echo the remarks of others, that perhaps they shouldn’t be required to do more. Instead of investing so much effort in them, perhaps this would be a good opportunity to identify others on the team who WANT to do more, and provide a valuable training opportunity for them.

  12. @Ann
    I agree with Ann’s comment. Someone put it in to perspective for me years ago when they said to understand that some employees are looking for a career and some want a job. It’s important to ask which category they wish to occupy and respect their choice.

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