The Lead Yourself First Blog

Leadership Lesson: Can You Motivate “Dead Wood” Employees?

“I’m done.” These are thoughts or words that indicate an employee’s time with your organization has come to an end. Of course, many people reach this point for reasons that have nothing to do with low morale, lack of opportunity or a dislike for their jobs. They are ready to move up, move on or begin a new chapter in their lives, once their careers are finished or their time in the workforce is over.

Scenarios like those above are easy to understand. However, the same cannot be said about an employee who shuts down, becomes apathetic at work, or sucks the life out of their co-workers by displaying negativity day in and day out. While there is little doubt that a lack of motivation manifests itself in various forms, there are often underlying issues that can be addressed positively and proactively.

Consider this Oxford dictionary definition of “dead wood”: “People or things that are no longer useful or productive.” For leaders, does this imply that it is impossible to motivate an individual who has either become uninspired, unproductive or uncooperative? Not necessarily. When an employee stops producing on the job and/or creates havoc for supervisors and team members alike, it is critical for leaders to get to the source of the issue and keep the following in mind:

1. “Usefulness” is a primary motivator

Organizations place an enormous focus on attracting great people. However, once on board, less attention is given to creating an environment where people want to stay. The intangible motivators, for example demonstrations of appreciation and trust, are at the core of successful workplace cultures. When an employee receives genuine acknowledgement for their contribution, he or she feels motivated to continue making a difference. Sadly, the reason many people become dissatisfied in their jobs is because being heard, valued and acknowledged is ultimately a lower priority than the work itself.

2. Practice preventative maintenance

For the most part, a decline in employee motivation and productivity isn’t a sudden, isolated occurrence. There may be a myriad of factors attributed to a performance slump, attitude shift or discontentment. When we are attuned to our team member’s concerns and invest in building a trusting relationship, we are ideally positioned to get to the heart of the issue. Leaders who are aware of the impact of organizational change on their teams, who anticipate reactions, and take proactive steps to communicate the change in advance can mitigate negative employee responses. If the opportunity indeed exists to re-energize and re-engage an employee, conversations regarding performance problems require planning, skill and objectivity. It’s important to create a dialogue, rather than perform a monologue.

3. “Dead Wood” scenarios aren’t black and white

Not all “dead wood” should be perceived as “useless wood.” A high performing employee can lose motivation and passion for their work for a variety of reasons. These include corporate takeovers, changes in leadership or job function, relocation, economic downturn, or a difficult personal challenge. As a result, he or she may feel uninspired and disheartened to the point where productivity halts and absenteeism increases. A leader who understands the impact of unexpected events (whether personal or business related) on every team member, can practice patience and offer much needed support and guidance.

4. Know when to let go

There is a big difference between people who have problems and people who are problems. It is a mistake to place all unmotivated employees in the same basket. Individuals who fall into the first category may not necessarily remain permanently uninspired. They may reconnect with their vocation because of the right support and encouragement. On the other hand, individuals in the “are problems” category are a different case altogether. They have disconnected entirely and have the potential to destabilize, or worse, poison the work atmosphere. In addition, resentment builds amongst many high performing employees when a “no accountability” culture becomes permissible.

Inaction on the part of leaders to effectively manage the various dead wood situations described above has immeasurable consequences on productivity, morale and the bottom line. Developing acuity regarding an employee’s specific motivation problem, along with implementing the appropriate solution is indeed possible. Let it start with you.

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