9 Virtues Blog

Motivating the Unmotivatable

by Rob Jenkins


A question I’m often asked, when I speak to groups of small business people, is “How do you motivate the unmotivatable?” The questioner is usually talking about low-wage hourly employees who may lack a sense of personal responsibility, not to mention ambition, and implying that the principles in The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders apply more to mature, self-directed types striving to climb the corporate ladder.

First of all, let me say that last assumption isn’t necessarily true. We believe the principles in The 9 Virtues apply across the board, to any type of leadership situation, from a tee-ball diamond to a fast-food restaurant to an executive suite. That said, it’s obviously easier to motivate people who already possess an inner drive to succeed and more difficult with those who are (or appear to be) lazy and indifferent. But “more difficult” doesn’t mean impossible.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have never managed a small business staffed mostly by low-wage, entry-level workers. I did, however, spend 13 years as a (pretty successful) junior college basketball coach, so I’m quite familiar with the kind of individuals such businesses typically employ: young, inexperienced, and often lacking in drive. That’s kind of the definition of a JUCO basketball player: good enough to play at a higher level but deficient in some other area, such as academics. Most were plenty intelligent enough to succeed in college; they just lacked motivation—and that often manifested itself on the court, as well.

So I know a little something about motivating the unmotivated.

The first principle to keep in mind, when trying to get people to do something they need to do but don’t necessarily want to do or care about—like play defense or show up for work on time—is that the best motivation always comes from within. This is something I used to preach to my players all the time: “Do you see those guys at Duke?” I would ask. “Do you think Coach K has to constantly motivate them? No! They’re already motivated. That’s why they’re at Duke.”

Of course, the truth is, those guys at Duke are young adults (just like my guys were), and so they probably do need to be motivated at times. One of the reasons Coach K has been so successful is that he’s a master at it. But the point I was trying to make to my team was that they couldn’t always count on external motivation. If they were going to be successful, they had to want that success for themselves and be willing to do whatever it took to achieve it.

I know what you’re thinking: That’s easy to say. But what do you do when people don’t want to succeed, or don’t care about succeeding, or don’t understand what success means? How do you get them to do what you, as the leader, understand needs to be done when they don’t understand it or see the need? That, after all, is the crux of the matter.

There are three keys to getting people to want to do the right things, those things that are in their best interests as well as yours. The first is to figure out what they value and how you can tie that to their performance. With ball players, it was playing time: If a guy didn’t play defense, he didn’t play at all. With low-wage employees it might well be more money, but not necessarily. It could be a more flexible schedule or an opportunity to take on some management responsibility. It might be performing more of one task and less of another. It might be some minor perk, like a parking space or a locker for personal items. You have to get to know your people well enough that you can figure out what they want and how to give it to them, within reason.

The second key to motivating people, or helping them find their own motivation, is to make sure they understand that you have their best interests at heart. (This means, among other things, that you must genuinely have their best interests at heart.) You’re not asking them to do things just to benefit you, or the company; you’re asking them to do things that, in the long run, will benefit them. In a word, you must love them, even when they’re not particularly loveable. Sometimes that may require “tough love,” in that you may have to discipline them. But I’ve found that when people—especially young people—believe you truly care about them and want what’s best for them, they’re willing to accept a certain amount of discipline and even some well-intentioned nagging. Moreover, as human beings, they’re somewhat likely to “love” you back and therefore want to please rather than disappoint you.

The third key to fostering internal motivation is to make people feel like they’re part of something larger than themselves, an integral part of the organization: Their performance is directly tied to the group’s performance, and others are counting on them to do their jobs and do them well. That’s why you always hear championship football coaches talk about accountability, and why so many companies are using some sort of profit-sharing model. The message to people is, “We can’t do this without you, and if you succeed, we all succeed. If you fail, we all fail.” As a leader, that’s a message you must constantly reiterate.

Unfortunately, there are some for whom that message falls flat—for whom every attempt at motivation falls flat. They don’t care about being an integral part of a team, or any part of a team. In fact, they don’t care about you or the company or much of anything, which makes it nearly impossible to identify what they value. Let me be blunt: If all someone cares about is surfing social media on their cell phone, or playing video games, or smoking pot, there’s probably not much you can do for them. My best advice would be to get rid of people like that the moment it’s clear that none of the principles above will have any impact on them. They are indeed unmotivatable.

I just refuse to believe that applies to very many people, even among the much-maligned Millennials we hear so much about. I’ve known plenty of young people—as a coach, a college professor and administrator, a parent, and a community volunteer—and very few of them fit that description. On one of my JUCO basketball teams, in a typical year, maybe one guy was completely unreachable. The rest could be motivated, if I could just find the right lever. Indeed, that’s a pretty good description of my job as head coach—and I think it’s probably a pretty good description of your job, too, as the owner or manager of a small or medium-sized business that employs a lot of low-wage, relatively inexperienced people, many of them in their first job.

So assuming most people CAN be motivated, if you can figure out how, here’s a simple, straight-forward, two-pronged approach that seems to work well for some of the best companies:

First, pay your employees a little above the norm for that type of work, a little more than your competitors are paying. And yes, that applies even to low-skilled, entry-level employees. It doesn’t have to be a lot more, just enough to be noticeable and to make a difference. If the place down the street is starting people out at minimum wage, and you’re offering a dollar more per hour, that’s likely to catch people’s eye and attract some of the better-quality prospects.

Yes, I understand the impact that could have on your bottom line. That’s why many business owners and managers have the attitude that they’re going to pay people as little as they can get away with. Just remember the old adage, “You get what you pay for.” Then take a closer look at what you’re spending now. What is lack of productivity costing your business? How about absenteeism? Tardiness? Turnover? You might well find that paying people a little more up front will actually save you money in the long run.

Second, have extremely high standards and expectations for your employees. I’m not suggesting you should be a slave driver. But you should expect them to show up when scheduled, on time and ready to get to work. You should expect them to work steadily and continuously at the tasks they’ve been assigned and to keep outside distractions (like cell phones) to a minimum. You should expect them to treat customers (and co-workers) with courtesy and respect and represent your company well. None of those things is too much to ask—especially when you’re paying them so well, relative to the competition.

If an employee consistently fails to measure up to those standards—and you should have procedures in place to ensure that they do, while allowing for honest mistakes and growing pains—then get rid of him or her, sooner rather than later. Offer that good-paying job to someone else, instead. The clear, if unspoken, message will be: “I’m going to pay you well, but in return I expect you to give me your best effort.” That’s a fair exchange, and most people—the overwhelming majority, I believe—will respect it and respond well to it. Those who don’t can go elsewhere.

If you implement this two-pronged approach, and follow it consistently, over time you will weed out those few who are genuinely unmotivatable, and you will be left with a workforce that is willing, even eager, to help move your business forward. Best of all, they will be self-motivated, not the kind of workers you have to stand over all the time just to make sure they’re doing their basic job.