How to motivate the muddled majority of your workforce

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Are your colleagues more like a fleet of high-powered Porsches—or a gassy gaggle of Ford Pintos?

Most communicators would probably describe their fellow employees in more middle-of-the-road fashion. Think, a garage full of late-model Toyota Corollas, for example. Reliable, for the most part, but nothing too fancy. See if any of these folks sound familiar:

  • Rocky works in IT, and he’s far too busy doing “important IT stuff” to open emails, offer survey feedback or participate in any company activities. He’s a notorious grump who smugly wields his small amount of power in a cave-like office near all those mysterious, whirring machines.
  • Ricki sits in the operations and logistics group. She’s known for her signature snark and frequent complaining. She talks openly about your culture’s many deficiencies.
  • Randi is a salesperson. Not a great one, but not terrible. Randi is content to sputter along until another opportunity arises.
  • Ridley works in marketing. She’s pursuing her MBA and is clearly bored with her current responsibilities.

How on earth might you empower these sorts of sour or dour lemons and help them truly flower?

Communicators can only do so much to motivate, educate or cajole, but Jim Ylisela, Ragan Consulting co-founder, says engaging tepid tinkerers is all about helping them feel part of something meaningful:

“At any workplace, there are people on the top who love everything and those on the bottom who are always unhappy. Then there’s the 70% to 80% of your workforce in the middle. These are the people we can reach. We can influence them; they’re gettable. The goal is to move that silent majority toward the positive side of the ledger and get them more engaged then they are.”

How does that movement occur? It’s about substance and meaning—not just Jeans Fridays or Ping-Pong Lunches.

Ylisela continues:

“Engagement’s not fun activities. It’s being part of something that matters. They must see that they’re a part of something meaningful. Part of that is making the connection between their job and larger, companywide goals.

“Everybody wants to feel like they have some input—not always making big decisions, but that they’re involved in the how, not the why or what. ‘Help me figure out how we’re gonna get there, and be a part of it.’ That’s when they’re truly engaged.”

Of course, all that is easier said than done.

Let’s see what other accomplished communicators, motivators and employee engagement prognosticators have to say about this universal struggle to inspire sluggards and laggards.

How to engage and inspire mediocre workers    

Laura MacLeod, an HR consultant and social worker, advises not beating about the bush. Be direct, and ask workers pointed questions (“Are you lacking motivation? Why?” “What could we change about your position to make you more interested?”) to uncover what’s wrong—and to find out what might stir the embers of their professional ambition.

Jason Lavis, managing director of marketing firm Out of the Box Innovations, says you should first look in the corporate mirror before casting aspersions on staffers. Is there anything in your culture or workplace that’s hindering employees from diving in? Do your execs or HR folks preach one thing and do the opposite?

Regardless of the state of your culture, gamification can boost engagement. “If implemented in a friendly, lighthearted way, gamification can be more effective than the stiff performance related reviews and bonuses,” he says.

Daniel Burstein of MarketingSherpa believes it’s all about tapping into “people’s passions and motivations.” If you can unearth “how they see themselves, and how they want to see themselves, you are taking a step to improve their journey through life,” he says. Also, “you are helping them apply their best selves at work to achieve your business goals.”

Business coach and consultant Amie Devero also exhorts communicators to first look inward. She says:

“Many employees who are unmotivated or indifferent are somewhat justified in being so, because they have not been included in the overall logic and context for the work they are doing. When people are tasked with simply performing a particular activity—but not given the rationale for why that is being demanded of them—they shut down. They behave similarly to the way they are being treated—like automatons.”

To fix this problem, work hard to ensure employees are keenly aware of how their work fits into the larger “company’s plan.”

Emily LaRusch, founder of virtual receptionist company Back Office Betties, suggests tapping into employees’ passions to pique their interest(s). She has her employees write down a list of 50 dreams or goals. Instead of gifting a “generic gift card,” her team rewards employees with a contribution toward one of their stated “dreams.”

Britt McColl from California-based ad agency RPA says to focus on crystallizing goals, expectations and accountability—and to challenge workers.

“One idea is to distill the goals into a short list—one being short term, one being a bit longer term and another being a year out. Once the person shows some progress toward being engaged, consider having the person create a project for themselves outside their typical responsibilities so that they can spread their wings and try something new.”

Dennis Mossburg of Mossburg Consulting Services advises asking employees substantive questions that elicit meaningful responses, such as:

  • What are your goals? How can I help you reach them?
  • How is your family?
  • How can I help you do your job?
  • How do you rate your performance?
  • How is your work and life balance?

He also challenges communicators, execs and managers to assess themselves on these statements:

  • I admit when I am wrong.
  • I know the strengths of my employees and assign tasks based on these strengths.
  • I trust my employees to make decisions when I am not around.
  • I take an active role in mentoring and coaching my employees.
  • I follow my employees’ advice when their ideas are better than mine.
  • I give my employees credit.

If you answer “no” to any of these, your “employee engagement” problem could be more of a “you” problem.

You can lead a horse to water…

Engagement is ultimately down to whether workers want it. You can’t force your horses to drink anything they don’t want to nor coerce them into caring more. However, you can create conditions (and content) that inspires, encourages and motivates your colleagues. You can generate a rising tide that lifts all the boats around you.

Over to you, communicators. How do you inspire those in the mediocre middle to crank it up a notch? How do you draw those in the middle toward greater involvement?