How to instantly turn around an employee who is displaying a poor attitude and a lack of motivation

I am sure that we have all been in the situation where one of our colleagues or employees has lost their enthusiasm for their job and simply comes in and robotically completes their tasks, or worse, deliberately disobeys rules to try and provoke a reaction, all whilst showing a negative or unhelpful attitude.

The problem

One person displaying such behaviour can be toxic and is likely to influence the mindset of hard-working and committed employees. If you have a team of people in your command, you will inevitably be faced with a situation like this.

We tend to attribute all sorts of negative thoughts to people who behave differently to how to expect them to, and we often do this without any actual evidence. This is fatal as we then start judging that person based on our assumptions, which as established tend to be negative ones.

What if you could fix this? Well, you can. And it is much easier than you think.

The most important step is to confront it immediately, with a level-headed and informed approach. By ‘nipping it in the bud’ you prevent the situation from escalating, and the mindset spreading to others.

What would be your initial thoughts to deal with such a person? Give them a warning? Send them a passive-aggressive e-mail explaining that you are unhappy with their performance? Or even better (not), reprimand them in front of colleagues or clients when they do something in a way that you deem incorrect?

I can with almost 100% certainty guarantee you that none of the above will have any positive effects on your employee’s mentality, quite the contrary, it will only make it worse. Sure, a warning, angry e-mail or reprimand might temporarily improve the output of the employee, but out of fear more than anything. Fear of punishment is not a healthy driver in any organisation, and is never a long-term solution to improve an individual’s opinion of their workplace. You need to solve the underlying issue that is causing the person to have the negative attitude.

The solution

The root of most problems is a lack of motivation an engagement. Coming to your employees with nothing but negatives will only push them further from you and your goals. Instead, you need to positively align them with the company and its vision once again. This should help to make the employee proactively keen to work, rather than simply picking up their feet for fear of the stick.

You need to set time aside for this person and take them for a meeting. But that´s not enough, it is how you will attack this meeting that matters.

Go out of the workplace if possible, coffee shops are ideal. They have a more relaxed environment than a meeting room and are considered to be mutual territory. These external factors will encourage the employee to let down their guard and open up about their feelings towards the situation.

The most important thing to remember is to not blame the individual for anything. As soon as you start blaming you will create a defensive response and animosity. If you are the direct supervisor or manager of this person, you need to blame yourself, as it will always fall back on you if one of your team members is not performing. This is an important mindset to take on before entering the meeting, as it will make it a lot easier for you to avoid blaming.

Again, blaming is a negative reinforcement and will only push the employee further away from you. Focus on the positives and try and re-inspire the individual.

Here are some examples of how to address things:

I have noticed that you seem to not be as motivated as you used to be, what has changed for you? And is there something I can do to change it?”

If the person admits to not being motivated or working to their best of ability, try with:

I am sorry I have not been able to keep you fully motivated and engaged, what can I do differently to get you back to a former level of motivation?”

or maybe even start the conversation with:

It seems like your work has slowed down significantly, and that you repeatedly do XXXXX despite me asking you not to, so I feel like I must be doing something wrong in my approach to you. Can you tell me why it is that you often do XXXXX despite that not being what we want, and if there is something I can do to make it more interesting for you to do XXXXX?”

Or similar, but you get the idea. Take the blame, don´t accuse the other, ask questions instead of telling, and most importantly, offer your help to solve the issues instead of demanding a solution from the other party. You could try and think of a new project that you can involve them in, or explain some inside workings of the company that perhaps they didn’t know, to try and peak their interest and engagement.

Never, never, never use “never”. Or “always”. Definitive terms sound extremely accusatory when presented alongside a negative (back to the blaming) and are hardly ever true. I can with a very high level of certainty claim the accusatory sentence “why do you always come in late?” to be factually incorrect most times it has been said. If you are going to have a constructive and productive conversation, you need to stick to the facts.

Always try and use reasonable observations, instead of facts. There are 2 reasons for this:

  1. You might not agree on the severity of something, so there might be an issue you consider to have happened “often”, and they consider it to have happened “sometimes”. If you present it as “often”, the other person will become defensive, and suddenly you are starting on a bad note and are discussing the frequency of an event, instead of the cause of and possible solution to the issue.
  2. A personal observation has a much softer sound to it, and it is, therefore, easier to have a productive conversation following it.

An example of a personal observation would be:

“To me, it seems like you have not done XXXXX as much lately as you used to”

Instead of

“You are not doing XXX as much as you used to do it”

The exact same message, two completely different methods of delivery.

The outcome

Every person is different, as are their approaches to different scenarios. Whilst the actionable steps that I have mentioned might go against your current tactics, they are guaranteed to work. The human brain responds well to a humanistic approach, and by engaging your employees and motivating them to work well, you will reap the reward in their output. Engagement is the number one thing you need to aim for when considering your approach to employees, as it is the proven, number 1 thing that will keep employees both motivated and loyal. These two in turn lower employee turnover, increase productivity and can also improve creativity within the company.

Talk to me!