Dave Conrad: What to do about unmotivated employees?

Dear Dave: I manage several people and almost all of them are motivated and work hard. My problem is, I have two workers who are extremely talented with good education and experience, but they are very unmotivated doing as little as possible to get by. What can I do to get these high-potential workers to become more motivated? — C

Dear C: For the employer, talented people pose both an opportunity and a risk. What gives talent its potential also makes it either impatient or apathetic. In short, being motivated is a choice we make no matter how much talent we possess.

Highly talented people have very different values and motivation from the majority of people. More is expected of them and they often expect more in return. They are often high-impact, but can be high-maintenance too.

Any manager (including my Rochester manager colleagues) will tell you talented workers think differently (and faster) - but they get bored more readily. They can deal with more complexity but are more complex in themselves, because they get frustrated more readily.

What Turns Them On


A recent McKinsey Quarterly survey found respondents view three noncash motivators — praise from immediate managers, leadership attention (for example, one-on-one conversations), and a chance to lead projects or task forces are even more effective motivators than the three highest-rated financial incentives: bonuses, increased pay, and stock options.

The survey’s top three nonfinancial motivators play critical roles in making employees feel that their companies value them, take their well-being seriously, and strive to create opportunities for career growth.

In another study, the following factors are ranked as to how essential they were to keeping talented people motivated:

• Values and culture in the company. 58%

• Freedom and autonomy to do the job. 56%

• The job has exciting challenges. 51%

• They are well managed. 50%

These findings tell us that employees – who we consider highly-talented or even ‘average workers’ – want more purpose and engagement from their work, their management, and their work environment.


Money is Not a Motivator

Money alone doesn't motivate talented people. And, unfortunately, money is how we rate everyone. How much do they earn? This can be as much about ego as money, but just because you can exploit certain talented people doesn't mean you should.

They (talented employees) take pride in being good at what they do, and they want to be paid equitably. However, even though it appears that talented employees want ample compensation for what they do, what they really desire is purpose, achievement, and management that doesn’t ride them like a rented mule.

Talented people thrive on challenge and become frustrated when forced to endure routine, meaningless, or boring tasks. They are a different kind of person - and they need a different kind of management. Also, the manager must be respected.

Seek out their input and encourage participation. Encourage fun - generally, we enjoy doing what we do well and do well what we enjoy doing. One cannot achieve one's full potential doing things that one does not enjoy.

Think in terms of removing obstacles in front of them so that they can use their talent to stay on mission rather than dissipate it dealing with issues of politics, environment, compensation, and appropriate recognition.

But, let me be clear: If you have done all you can to help these people become motivated and they are making no progress – and especially if they are negatively affecting the output and well-being of their coworkers - I don’t care how talented they are … replace them.


What To Read Next
Get Local