I have 16 employees reporting to me. Most of them do great work, and I am proud of them. But there are a few who don’t seem to care about their work or do just enough to get by. Their work is not bad enough that I can just fire them. Why do some workers take pride in their job and some could care less? Is it money, me, the times we live in, or what? — M

Dear M: In his book, "Good to Great," Jim Collins advises managers to hire the best and brightest, and make sure they are doing what they should be doing. He calls it, “Putting the right people in the right seats on the bus.” I believe if you want motivated workers, make sure you hire the right people in the first place! investigate your job candidates thoroughly, interview them top to bottom, and find out what turns them on.


Now, it is obvious you have inherited or selected unmotivated workers, so what should you do? Well, you could just fire them for not hitting unhittable goals, or you can help develop them through training and motivation. I vote for option two, because I hate to see people fail, and I hate it more if managers feel like they failed people by not doing all they could to help them. However, you should not feel shame when employees fail themselves.

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I researched one very credible management publication that noted a number of motivational “hot buttons” for workers. Workers must:

  • Find enjoyment in the work itself.

  • Have a sense of purpose and that what they do is very important and very needed.

  • Take pride in performing excellently, knowing they put their all into their work.

  • Enjoy the excitement and pleasure of a challenge.

  • Desire to exceed their previous level of job performance (being self-competitive).

This is an interesting list and it defines the fact that “good workers” want to do what they do best, and they want to make a positive difference by doing the work they are doing. It also tells me that they are not afraid of a challenge and quite possibly managers should give them some loftier goals – but not too lofty.

So, what else can managers do to motivate their staff? The answers may be simpler than you think. At the top of the list is showing respect to their employees and being genuinely interested in the quality work they are doing. This practice does not cost one penny and it works wonders. Everyone – and I mean, everyone – wants to be respected.

Offering appropriate and timely praise and recognition never goes out of style and managers should review employees and their work to help them become more productive. This means helping employees see how their work is vital to team and organizational performance and then providing them training and education, so they can become the best they can be.

Managers can appropriately challenge their employees and – this is big – give them a sense of control over their work. Just think how hard it is to do your best work when your boss is breathing down your neck. Employees take pride in their work and they want to own it.

Work is such a big part of our identity, and good managers inspire their workers to want to do more, and even make mistakes every so often, so they can learn from them. I am not saying that managers should sit back and watch their employees self-destruct; I am saying that employees can realize greater success if they first understand their failures.

Also, remember that employees have a whole assortment of emotional baggage they bring with them, including bad experiences and fears from the past and present. They may have come from a company or department in which managers treated them poorly, or they may have had a job that in no way utilized their talents and true abilities. Their self-esteem may be low, and they may be mistrusting of management in general. Gain their trust by showing that you trust them.

Finally, listen carefully to what they say and try to hear what they do not say. Also, spend time mingling with your employees, but don’t “over mingle.” Ask caring questions and show an interest in what they do outside of work. You may get "canned" responses from them, because they may wonder what you are doing. But I would take that risk – it shows you care.

Like the old saying goes, “Employees may not care what you know; they want to know that you care.” Be sincere and emphasize that you believe in motivation and satisfying employee motivation needs, and you want to make the department a more enjoyable, productive place to work.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at conradd@augsburg.edu. Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.