Turning Around Demotivated Employees:

A How-To Guide for Motivating Employees as a Manager

Are you struggling with motivating employees? If so, you’re not alone. One of the many consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic was demotivation among employees. In light of this, the question on many managers' minds is: how do you get demotivated employees motivated again? In this guide, we'll dive into this question and provide a number of practical tips managers can immediately apply.

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There is something unsettling about going back to the workplace if you’ve been working from home for the last 18 months. The surroundings are familiar but a distant memory, a calendar hanging in an office still showing March 2020, frozen in time. 

It is hard to fathom the amount of change we’ve all experienced in every aspect of our lives. At work, some individuals fared easier than others. Many organizations experienced layoffs, shutdowns, and a total transformation in how they do business in order to survive. Combined with school closures, worry about loved ones, and the fear and anxiety of going out in public, it’s no wonder employees and leaders alike are feeling less than motivated at work.

In a recent survey of U.S. employees, 69% agreed that the pandemic was the most stressful time of their entire career, including major events like the September 11 terror attacks and the 2008 Great Recessions. As a result, 70% of those surveyed agreed that they were significantly less productive due to the stress and anxiety caused by COVID-19. 

It is safe to say that the pandemic zapped our motivation. According to Psychology Today, this has something to do with the fact that we are dealing with the following to some degree: 

  • Overwhelming uncertainty
  • Dull domesticity
  • Loss of control
  • Inability to plan for the future
  • Loss of self-experience
  • Loss of time

One of the many consequences of the pandemic is a majority of the workforce is demotivated. But they weren’t always. As the definition says, a demotivated employee is not motivated right now, but they were in the past. 

This begs the question; how do you get demotivated employees motivated again? 

For many leaders, it’s hard to know what to do when it feels like influencing employee motivation is totally out of your control. While there is a lot you cannot control, such as the fallout of the pandemic, you can however take specific actions to create the right conditions to help demotivated employees. 

This guide will explore the importance of motivating staff, signs of a lack of motivation at work, and the factors that can lead to demotivation. In addition, you’ll learn eight practical ways you can create the right conditions to increase motivation. Let’s jump in.


Why Is Motivating Employees Important?

For an organization, there are many benefits when an employee is motivated, such as lower absenteeism, increased productivity, reduced employee turnover, and improved work quality. Conversely, from a purely financial perspective, demotivation is costly, with Gallup estimating that it costs U.S. companies anywhere from $483 to $605 billion annually. 

From the employee’s perspective, when they’re motivated it makes them more satisfied with their job, creates a sense of purpose for their work, provides clarity on their professional goals and priorities, and leads to enhanced well-being overall. 

All of which is to say that a motivated employee is a win-win for the organization and the individual and should be a top priority across all levels of management, from the executive team to frontline managers.

The Importance of Motivating Employees as a Manager

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How Do You Know If Employees Are Demotivated? What To Watch For

It can be hard to keep a pulse on every employee and their behaviors, especially if you’re working remotely. Yet, this is one of the most significant contributions people leaders can make, as one demotivated team member’s attitude can affect and influence those around them if left unchecked long-term.

Not to mention, demotivated employees are more common right now than ever. According to a study by Morneau Shepell, 40% of employees have been less motivated at work since the start of the pandemic. 

So, if you think one or many individuals on your team may be demotivated, here are six common signs to watch out for: 

  • It takes them longer to do tasks than it usually does
  • They procrastinate tasks that they once looked forward to
  • They’re irritable when asked to do something outside their day-to-day essentials
  • Their attention span is shortened, and they are often unfocused
  • They make mistakes that are uncharacteristic of them
  • They withdraw from or avoid non-necessary conversations or activities

What are the Effects of Demotivation on Employees?

When an employee is demotivated, it has consequences not only on the organization, such as a loss of productivity but also on the person's wellbeing. In a 2018 U.S. research study, respondents noted the following as the top five effects of demotivation: 

  • 62% said their mood worsened
  • 46% said their productivity decreased
  • 45% said they experienced a decline in their mental health
  • 37% said their quality of work suffered
  • 29% said their diet deteriorated

Demotivation, stress, and burnout go hand in hand, and unfortunately, burnout is on the rise. In 2021, mild, moderate, or severe burnout incidents increased another 3% from the previous year, leading to an 82% burnout rate this year. The consequences were highlighted in a study released in the summer of 2021, which found that 58% of frontline workers were preparing to leave their jobs and cited burnout as the top reason.

More than ever, employees and teams need a leader who is aware of demotivation and burnout, is empathetic to the situation, and is willing to be agile and adjust as needed.

What are the Effects of Demotivation on Employees


What Are the Most Significant Demotivating Factors in the Workplace?

To turn around demotivation in the workplace, organizations and people leaders alike must recognize this is a real and significant problem. Unfortunately, our track record to date isn’t excellent, as almost 7 out of 10 respondents of one study said their employer could do much more to motivate them.

According to research from Human Resources Director, the top four reasons employees feel unmotivated are:

  • A lousy manager (46%)
  • Feeling invisible, not included, or undervalued (43%)
  • Boring or unsatisfying job assignments and work (43%)
  • Lack of appreciation and recognition (42%)

The respondents in the same survey strongly agreed (74%) that their direct manager should be doing more to inspire and motivate them. So, while it may feel overwhelming to help demotivated employees given the current workplace climate, employees have made it clear they want and need their leaders to do something. So, let’s move on to what that something is.

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How Do You Motivate Employees? 8 Ways To Turn Around Demotivation

What motivates employees has shifted with the pandemic and the associated self-reflection of what employee’s value in their lives. For example, in the past, a top motivator may have been promotions and compensation. Whereas, today, employees may be motivated more by working for a company with a great culture and values that align with their own, finding purpose in their work, inspiring leaders, work-life balance, and flexibility in terms of where, when, and how they work.

Independent of the shifts in what motivates employees, the linchpin to motivation has remained constant. Strong, clear, and inspiring communication skills continue to be at the center of how to motivate employees as a manager. It will be near impossible to motivate your team without providing information, listening to their concerns, and giving clear directions. However, you cannot just be a charismatic speaker and tell people to be motivated and love their job. You must create conditions that inspire, engage, and motivate.

To help you do so, here are eight ways leaders can create the right conditions to turn demotivation into motivation.


Deliver Appreciation and Feedback

The number one driver of motivation is being shown appreciation for hard work. The importance of gratitude and positive feedback was supported by David Friedman, author of, Culture by Design: How to Build a High-Performing Culture Even in the New Remote Work Environment. 

“Praise for a job well done should flow across all levels of the organization – peer to peer, manager to their direct report, and direct report to their manager,” Friedman says. “Remember your remote workers – they may already be feeling disconnected from the workplace, so remind them that you notice and appreciate their contributions.”

However, a recent Harvard Business Review article, Little Things That Make Employees Feel Appreciated, discovered a sizable gap between how much managers expressed their appreciation for their team members and how appreciated their team members actually felt.

The same article asked employees what their direct leaders could do to make them feel appreciated. Here is what they said: 

  • Frequent Communication and Check-Ins: Greeting your team with a simple “good morning” and checking in on how they're doing builds connections and prevents employees from feeling isolated or forgotten.

  • Balance Positive and Constructive Feedback: Employees crave feedback. They want to know where they stand with you and what they can fix before it becomes an issue. In essence, feedback in any variety makes employees feel valued and demonstrates you’re invested in their development and success.

  • Have Development-Focused Conversations: By making time to talk about your employee’s professional goals and providing corresponding learning opportunities, such as stretch assignments, you’re indicating that you value and support your employee.

  • Demonstrate Trust Through Flexibility: When direct leaders offer the option to work remotely or take time off after working overtime, it demonstrates to an employee you trust them and appreciate their extra effort.

  • Go Beyond You and Make it a Ritual: Starting team meetings with everyone giving a shout-out and creating a Slack channel for sharing appreciation and accomplishments can have a significant impact, as employees cited peer recognition as one of their biggest motivators. In addition, peer praise, seek opportunities to acknowledge significant achievements publicly, and express your gratitude individually through thank you notes and during one-on-one meetings.

Overcome Demotivation by Giving Employees a Sense of Purpose


Give Employees a Sense of Purpose

When asked what makes a great leader, American politician and diplomat Colin Powell would respond, “Leadership is all about inspiring people with a sense of purpose.” In his book, It Worked for Me, he wrote, “Good leaders set vision, missions, and goals. Great leaders inspire every follower at every level to internalize their purpose, and to understand that their purpose goes far beyond the mere details of their job.”

Everyone, from the executives to front-line employees, needs a purpose to drive their level of motivation. It has never been more critical to do precisely that as employees reevaluate their priorities in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For example, there is a legend that when John F. Kennedy toured NASA headquarters, he walked past a janitor and asked, “Why are you working so late?” The janitor responded, “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.” Individuals want to know how their contributions impact the company’s purpose. It’s up to their direct leader to give them such a purpose by connecting their work to the company’s larger mission. 

Bear in mind that your company’s mission should focus on the difference your company makes in the world. Moreover, it needs to be more than just a poster on the wall or something included in an onboarding kit to be truly effective. It must be referred to often and continually reinforced in day-to-day life to create a real sense of purpose and motivation.


Provide Autonomy

What could be more demotivating than being micromanaged?  Without fail, it makes employees feel that their boss doesn't trust them and feels they cannot do their job. Instead, employees at all levels want some degree of autonomy and clear directions on what they’re accountable for. They want to be delegated work with the freedom to complete it as they see fit. 

The desire and value of autonomy were proven in the 1970s by psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, who developed the self-determination theory, which, in short, states that individuals are best motivated by intrinsic factors as opposed to extrinsic rewards. Through their research, they found that autonomy was the most critical factor in driving intrinsic motivation. Independence and control over how work is completed compel individuals to deliver their very best work. In other words, the more autonomy an employee feels, the more motivated they will be.


Encourage Growth Opportunities

In a survey of over 200,000 employees, having access to growth opportunities was the fifth biggest motivator, coming in just behind receiving recognition and a desire to do great work. Employees want their manager to provide them with opportunities to improve their skills and contribute great work, which inspires, challenges, and motivates them.

But growth opportunities go beyond promotions and pay increases. It can be direct leaders supporting and encouraging their employee’s professional development. If you’re wondering what else you can do, here are some example growth opportunities that employees will be motivated by: 

  • Provide ongoing coaching and feedback during one-on-one meetings
  • Determine professional goals and co-create a development plan
  • Attend a professional development program or conference
  • On-the-job training or job shadowing Work with a professional coach
  • Match them with a mentor
  • Give them a stretch assignment

Motivate Employees by Actively Listening


Actively Listen

A global survey of over 4,000 employees uncovered that highly engaged and motivated employees are three times more likely to agree they feel heard at work than highly disengaged employees. For employees to be motivated, direct leaders need to be excellent listeners. 

But how do you know if you’re an excellent listener? Ask yourself and ponder the following questions which were posed in a New York Times article regarding active listening. 

  1. When was the last time you listened to someone? Listened, without thinking about what you wanted to say next, glancing down at your phone or jumping in to offer your opinion?

  2. And when was the last time someone listened to you? Was so attentive to what you were saying, and whose response was so thoughtful that you felt truly understood?

Unfortunately, many people leaders will likely agree they are the person Stephen Covey was referring to when he said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Therefore, the next time you're in conversation with a team member, fight the natural tendency to formulate a response while the other person is speaking. Instead, attentively listen to what your employee is saying and resist responding until you understand what they truly said and have a meaningful response. 


Demonstrate Honesty, Trust, and Transparency

It’s not surprising that 90% of employees who work for one of the 25 winners of 2021 World’s Best Workplaces agreed that their management is honest and ethical in its business practices. For employees to be motivated and engaged with their work, they must trust their direct leader and organization, and trust is built through honesty and transparency.

One of the 25 winners is software company Atlassian, which boldly states one of their core values is “open company, no bullshit.” They believe that “employees need to trust that leadership is guided by values and committed to transparency. So we’re also honest with our teams - we don’t get all the decisions right, but we’re always open. We believe that owning up to not knowing something as a leader or admitting a mistake helps foster trust across the company.”

As a leader, you can apply this idea at work by practicing honesty, humility, and transparency at work, and in turn, you’ll build a team culture where trust is the norm.


Be a Leader You'd Want To Work For

As we learned earlier, the number one reason employees are not motivated is a lousy leader. If you’ve ever had the displeasure of working for a terrible boss, you will likely agree your motivation was never lower.

An employee’s direct leader has an undeniable impact on their motivation or lack thereof. In a study of over 2.7 million employees, Gallup concluded that 70% of the employee engagement and motivation variance is determined solely by the manager they work for. Gallup goes on to explain that, “Managers are in charge of ensuring that employees know what needs to be done, supporting and advocating for them when necessary, and explaining how their work connects to organizational success.”

Many leaders were appointed to their management roles by excelling as individual contributors. However, the functional skills needed as an individual are incredibly different from those required to lead people. That’s why developing strong leadership skills through training and working with a professional coach are essential to be the type of leader you would want to work for; the kind of leader who creates the right conditions, so their team is motivated to deliver their very best.


Change Your Culture

Whether on a team or across an organization, culture is the summation of each individual’s values and behaviors. In essence, it is how people interact and work together to get the job done. Unfortunately, some cultures can be toxic and demotivating if it is common practice for individuals to yell, hoard resources, undermine each other, or micromanage their colleagues to win at all costs. 

On the other hand, a positive culture and a source of motivation are where individuals appreciate each other, share knowledge, and have autonomy over their work. But the only way this type of culture comes to be is when the leader is intentional about cultivating and supporting it. A great example of this is tech giant HubSpot. They published their Culture Code which is regularly updated and outlines the behaviors that define the culture they’re intentionally creating for their employees. You can even download their template to build your own document.

If you want to increase motivation, you need to assess your culture and change it if it does not support the conditions that drive motivation. For example, does your culture clearly describe the behaviors and values that align with driving motivation like appreciation, feedback, purpose, autonomy, trust, listening, personal growth, and strong leadership? And do employees actually live out these behaviors, or is it nothing more than a booklet received during orientation?

If you find yourself answering no to the questions above, it may be time to transform an aspect or the entire culture of your company, department, or team. You’re not alone if you feel like it is time to change. As a result of the pandemic, 57% of companies anticipate significant changes to their culture.

Team Culture Impacts Employee Motivation


Next Steps

In light of everything we have endured the past 18 months, is it any surprise that employees feel demotivated at work? After reading this guide, it shouldn’t be. We’ve been through a lot, and it’s taken its toll. 

However, this is not to say that things cannot change for the better. If you want to turn around your demotivated employees and see them motivated once again, there are practical things you can start doing today to help get them there. With a combination of coaching, change management, delegation, active listening, communication, and general leadership skills, you’ll slowly begin to see the morale of your employees shift. 

Of course, if you’re struggling in any of those areas, you can either enroll in a training program or enlist the help of a professional coach to help build your confidence and competence. Fortunately, the Niagara Institute provides both so that leaders at all levels can become a trustworthy source of motivation for their employees.

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