Motivating Staff Who Don't Care

Frequently, I find myself talking to supervisors in non-profit organizations about how to motivate their staff. Funny thing, people who work in non-profit agencies can evidently be just as unmotivated as their counterparts in the traditional, for-profit business community. Whenever I open the session up to questions, I always get a question that goes something like this, "So Larry, how do I get my staff engaged when they don't seem to be at all motivated?"

That's the $64k question and if you develop a magic pill to do that, you will make a lot of money selling that pill to supervisors and managers around the world.

The problem is that the answer does not lie in a pill. Engagement or motivation (I use the terms somewhat synonymously) isn't like a coat that you can put on or take off. For jobs in human services where the capacity to think and make judgments is involved, neither pay raises, bonuses, extra vacation time, special percs or any other external benefit impacts motivation. In fact they can serve as de-motivators. As nice as the extra money is, a pay raise only supercharges energy level for about 10 days.

Why is it that we claim to know so much about changing client behavior but so little about how to change the behavior of staff? The answer to employee motivation is not likely to come from the employee but rather from a complex network of supervisory behaviors; behaviors which develop a workplace environment where not only clients can change but where staff attitudes and behaviors can change as well.

What follows is my description of that network of supervisory behaviors which will in fact change the behavior of staff. It won't happen overnight, but it will happen.

1. Reduce mis-hires. Some people you should not have hired in the first place; eventually you will terminate these people. Finding people with positive energy and a can-do attitude will have a tremendous payoff in the long haul. They can be found.

2. Be clear about duties and expectations. Align these with the mission of the organization and talk about it at every staff meeting...and in between too.

3. Emphasize learning for everyone, from top to bottom. Make the quality improvement value come alive and show people how learning new skills makes them more productive. Demonstrate your personal commitment to improving your skills as a supervisor.

4. Show an interest in the personal stressors of your employees. Don't pry or be in any way unprofessional; and don't excuse a lack of performance, but you need to understand the mountains they have to climb in order to be successful on the job. It will engender tremendous loyalty when you do this well and you just might be able to help them or point them in the direction of help.

5. Tell employees, over and over again, "I (your supervisor) will do what I need to do to help you be successful on the job." Be a cheerleader and a promotional agent for your employees; share their accomplishments with others in the organization.

6. Give people honest feedback from their first day on the job.

7. Be a supervisor who is trustworthy and dependable. You are the professional here; in a way you are a parent. Recognize that the changes you are asking employees to make in their attitudes and behavior is a big change and it's scary because new behavior takes them, like the rest of us, out of their comfort zone. Remove fear and help them feel safe by providing a firm, fair and consistent environment. It will make real change happen faster.

I wish I could say that this was a simple, fast process. It is not. And there are few guaranteed outcomes. But I challenge you to show your employees that change is possible by adopting just one of the 7 suggestions above. It will concretely demonstrate your commitment to quality and you will experience the challenge of personal change. That will only make you a better supervisor - guaranteed.