How to motivate employees



Read time
6 mins

person stressed out while working

It’s not uncommon for employees to become demotivated from time to time. We explore the signs and dangers of a lack of motivation and six ways to improve staff motivation.

Despite your best efforts, it’s possible that even the best hires can become demotivated over time – in fact, nearly a third of UK workers are unhappy in their current job according to 2017 data from Investors in People.

HR professionals and managers need to learn to recognise the signs of a demotivated employee, and have strategies in place to assist and re-energise them before the situation escalates into a bigger problem.

In this article, we look at the causes of a lack of motivation; the signs that a member of staff is unmotivated; the effects of an unmotivated employee; and six tips for how to motivate unmotivated employees.

What can cause employees to lose motivation?

Treating employees with respect and demonstrating that your organisation values them as people will help to reduce the likelihood of falling motivation levels.

Leaders need to make time to simply talk with their teams and be aware of what can demotivate staff.

Feeling low and unmotivated can cause an employee to become distant and quiet; if they know that they can talk to their manager, then the situation can be discussed and improved or overcome.

A lack of motivation can be caused by a number of factors, including:

  • Lack of career progression
  • Boredom
  • Lack of confidence in management decisions
  • Feeling under-appreciated
  • Unmanageable workload
  • Micromanagement
  • Unsuitable working environment
  • Lack of communication and transparency 

What are the signs that an employee is unmotivated?

Every leader should have (or learn) the ability to spot potential problems with their employees.

Building relationships is an important element of any manager’s role and means you’ll be better able to spot when something isn’t quite right.

Some of the tell-tale signs of demotivation include:

  • Lack of focus
  • Increased absence (you’ll need to monitor this through manual records, a time and attendance system, or through HR software)
  • Increased breaks or time away from their desk
  • Increased time to start working after arriving in the office
  • General change in demeanour and mood towards colleagues and/or peers
  • Inappropriate comments or remarks
  • A ‘distantness’ from colleagues 

What are the effects of a demotivated employee?

As well as affecting the productivity of the particular employee, the feeling of demotivation can also affect those around them and the general atmosphere in a department or office. Being distracted and distracting others is a common trait of someone who’s not motivated.

Demotivated employees may take more personal time off during working hours, such medical appointments. This time off is not usually taken as annual leave and so costs your organisation time and money.

If the employee works in a client-facing role, the problem may affect your organisation’s relationship with its customers, too. 

What can you do to support and improve employee motivation?

1) Simply ask what the problem is

Avoiding an issue or uncomfortable conversation isn’t the way to deal with the situation.

Asking an employee if they’re OK, and if there’s anything you can do to help, will be appreciated and is often enough to begin resolving any problems. As a manager, you have a duty of care towards your team, and to establish a strong relationship that creates the space to have open and honest discussions about any issues as soon as they arise.

The problem may be that an employee’s workload is too much or unrealistic for them to complete by a specific deadline. If this is the case, then the issue could be easily resolved through delegating work or changing deadlines, where possible.

2) Take a genuine interest in your employees

If your employees respect you and know that you take a genuine interest in their wellbeing and career aspirations, then they’ll be more confident that their efforts will not go unnoticed. Displaying a real and honest desire to help your team progress will encourage them to produce work that they’re proud of, and want you to be just as impressed with.

Regular ‘catch-ups’ with a manager are a great way to motivate employees. You can then be kept well aware of each other’s projects, ideas and any potential problems. These mini-meetings also help to strengthen the manager-employee relationship and build a cohesive team culture.

3) Set clear goals

If an employee knows and fully understands what it is they’re working towards, then it’s easier for them to plan and manage their time in order to achieve their goal. Not being given clear milestones and an ultimate goal is confusing and can make tasks feel pointless and a waste of time.

Having clear goals also helps employees to measure their own success. Completing projects ahead of time, or achieving over-and-beyond the original target, can be a great boost to motivation.

4) Give employees something to strive for

Offering additional incentives in addition to standard pay and reward can be a powerful motivating tool. Putting in place a comprehensive benefits package that includes items such as private healthcare, a cycle to work scheme, subsidised gym membership and enhanced parental parental can be a cost-effective way of boosting staff engagement.

Creating a sense of healthy competition is a management tactic that’s been successfully used by sales teams for years – and one that could be replicated in other departments, too. Organisation-wide incentives to achieve specific goals should be used to improve employee motivation, wellbeing and encourage a sense of community and collaboration.

Using a company intranet to create a community is very effective. Publishing employee news, competitions and incentives stimulates conversations and cultivates a happy and connected culture. Happy, cohesive employees are more motivated to do well and drive the business forward.

5) Offer flexibility

Showing that, as an employer, you can be flexible and adapt to your employees’ needs improves motivation as well as internal relationships and wellness. Employees who are able, should they need to, to work remotely or work different hours will feel valued and respected by the organisation – and, in return, they’ll be more motivated and productive.

6) Build trust as a leader

People respect others that they can trust: if your team members don’t trust you, you’ll have difficulty motivating them. Gaining trust requires time and transparency; a good leader is open, honest and shows respect for their whole team. Employees who know they can trust their manager will feel comfortable approaching them if they have any issues or feel unmotivated. It’s far better that they discuss their issues with you rather than look for a new job elsewhere.

This article was first published in June 2014. It was updated in November 2022 for freshness, accuracy and clarity.