How to motivate the unmotivated

Motivation is a tricky thing. When we have it, it feels great! All in and let’s go. When we don’t have it, every day drags on like a two-legged dog. How do we motivate others when we don't feel motivated ourselves? Let’s look at the causes, then solutions.

Meet Jane. When I first met her, she was very demotivated. The business was going well, but it came with a bag of problems. She had conflict with her co-founder Dave, and felt like she was carrying the whole business duties alone. The business had become unwieldy with too many staff. In an attempt to get some relief and find a way out, she was also trying to sell her share to an investor. Now the investors wanted more and more reports.  She was spending more and more of her time producing the reports than getting on with building the business for its sale.

She was flat as a pancake.

Jane felt unhealthy, stressed out and demotivated. She was ready to call it quits and do something completely different. She couldn’t motivate himself, let alone her staff.

When it comes to being unmotivated, there are a number of causes. Let’s look at these first before we look to solutions.

1. Structure of the environment. 

Delayed Reward. Reward has a big part to play in motivation. Sometimes when we have a big project or business, it can feel like the rewards are delayed far into the future. Given that our society and our culture is hardwired for immediate gratification, it’s hard to sustain motivation over a long period of time without the dopamine hit of a quick win.

Unseen Payoff. It seems that we are toiling endlessly and that there is no win in sight. We don’t know where the finish line is. We lack a sense of destination.

Unrealistic Goals. We might have set our sights on growing the business by 50% in one year. Instead of inspiring us, it’s like a dead albatross around our neck.

Overwhelming Task. The task itself may seem overwhelming. It is very big and complex, and getting started feels like putting your shoulder against a massive boulder.

2. Perception issues

Perception of power. Feeling demotivated can come from a loss of autonomy, the sense that decisions are being made to us instead of by us. That can bring about a sense of resignation and hopelessness.

Uncertainty. Not sure how the outcome will come about, what the results will be, or what our place is in the future. Cue deflation, like a saggy balloon.

Sense of self efficacy. We may feel like we don’t have much power in the world in general. We may not believe that we have much talent either. Therefore, we feel that the big task ahead of us is simply not achievable for us, because we don’t believe in ourselves.

When we looked at Jane’s challenges in the business, we worked out that she had definitely lost a sense of autonomy. There was a huge amount of uncertainty in the business deal that she had shaped with investors. One of the first things she did was to buy out the investors and get rid of that obligation. Her sense of personal power soared.

Next, we identified what kind of reward that she really wanted from the business. It came down to two things: a happy work environment, and more time at the beach. She did not want to feel like she was a slave to staff or work.

Jane set about restructuring the business. She simplified business systems and made the whole thing more streamlined. She reduced uncertainty for the staff, by letting them know that they were not selling the business anymore. Spirits rose. 

Jane worked on restructuring the purpose of the organisation so that everybody in the team knew where they fit into the business and how they contributed to the one overarching objective. Together, they restructured workflows so everybody felt like the tasks were more achievable each day. They set more realistic and achievable goals together in terms of their output. They also designed fun rewards that everyone bought into. These were not financial rewards, but celebration rewards like a night out to the movies.

How to motivate the unmotivated:

  1. Design of the work environment with regards to the task. We made the tasks more defined and more achievable.
  2. Design the environment to have enticing rewards that were meaningful to each person. For Jane, the rewards were less headaches at work and more time at the beach.
  3. Reclaim power in the business, and give a sense of autonomy back to the team.
  4. Reframe self-perception. We spent time developing her influence skills, leadership skills, and strategic thinking skills so that she felt she had the conviction and clarity to create the business that she aspired to lead.

The end result is that the team is happy, Jane is happy, the business is thriving, and she spends more time at the beach.

What can you tweak in your environment to create more motivation? How can you claim back more autonomy?


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