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How to deal with a demotivated team

Vici Hoban

A team looking tired, bored and demotivated

Motivated staff are crucial for the success of any organisation, but too many managers are struggling to deal with demotivated teams. The threat of redundancies and restructuring only raises the stakes, so how can you make every employee feel focused and valued? Victoria Hoban investigates

Demotivation: sometimes the best solution to morale problems is just to fire all of the unhappy people.’ US sociologist Larry Kersten may have had tongue firmly in cheek when he said this, but it aptly sums up how it can feel when faced with a team that has ‘lost its mojo’.

"Turning around the motivation curve is tough – it’s where managers earn their worth and requires a different set of skills to when things are going well," says Sebastian Bailey, global product director at Mind Gym, which provides mental workouts for companies.

Motivation is the psychological state that drives someone towards a desired goal or action. It can be extrinsic (driven by something external such as earning money) or intrinsic (driven by something internal such as the desire to do a job well). Motivated employees improve business performance by up to 30% and are 2.5 times more likely to exceed performance expectations than disengaged colleagues, according to management consultancy Hay Group.

"When you are motivated you have a clear sense of purpose, energy, perseverance and resilience," says David Langdon, director of business psychology company Xancam. "Demotivation is less defined and is often not something we are conscious of; it creeps up on us."

A 2008 survey by Investors in People found that one in three workers in the UK felt demotivated. And that was before we’d felt the full impact of the current economic crisis which, with its pay freezes and redundancies, will undoubtedly have an effect on motivation levels.

Pressure points

The first task is not to examine your staff but to look at your own motivation levels. If you’re demotivated yourself, you’ll be unable to motivate others, so you must identify problems and bring about change in yourself first.

So what are the causes of demotivation? A major trigger, says Bailey, is uncertainty. "If someone has been in the same job for a long time, or has their role altered in restructuring or redundancies, they can find themselves under-challenged and anxious. They begin to lose touch with how they fit into the business and feel undervalued."

Julieanne Murray, managing director of healthcare recruitment agency PJ Locums, witnessed this effect first hand when she had to cut her staff from ten to just three after NHS job freezes negatively affected her business. "Staff who were made redundant realised it was a needs must situation, but those who remained were worried about what it meant for them and the company," she recalls.

Uncertainty among staff can also be caused by poor communication from managers and ‘broken promises’, says Bailey. That is, when managers’ words are either absent or inconsistent with their actions. Further damage is caused if managers do not treat all staff equally – for example, praising a team member for completing a project without congratulating colleagues in the same team – or if they criticise individuals in front of their peers. "If people don't know what is going on, or see staff treated without respect and dignity, you risk losing their engagement completely," warns Bailey.

Classic signs

Increased absenteeism and sickness, incomplete or careless work and a lack of interest in the job all signal demotivation, says Lisa Wynn, director and certified coach at management coaching company Corporate Potential. Another telltale sign is fewer knocks on your office door. "If your team stops coming to talk to you about things as much as they used to, it is usually a sign they have given up," she says.
Murray was definitely conscious of a ‘don’t care’ attitude emerging among some of her staff members while building the business back up. "I said if they told me what skills they wanted to develop I would provide training, but nobody came back to me."

So what can you do if you need to remotivate your team? The first task is not to examine your staff but to look at your own motivation levels. If you’re demotivated yourself, you’ll be unable to motivate others, so you must identify problems and bring about change in yourself first.

Next, talk to each team member to find out more about their particular skills and ambitions. This will help you to work out what motivates them – their personal drivers – which are different for every person. Ask them what they expect from their job and from the business as a whole, and also find out about their general life goals.

"Some staff might be motivated by making the world a better place, others by rolling around on a bed of £50 notes,’ says Mat Freer, director of innovation company ?What If! "Everyone has a different set of values and beliefs. It’s about finding out what success means for them and using it to anchor their enthusiasm."

Some motivators are universal. For example, everyone is motivated by personal achievement. Setting clear, specific, realistic and achievable goals is crucial. Seeing progress towards these goals can also give a sense of achievement and help revive motivation. ‘Make sure you praise immediately and be specific,’ advises Wynn. For example, you could say: ‘I was really impressed by your presentation yesterday. Your research was thorough and you pitched the content just right for the audience.’

Are your employees challenged in their jobs? People may also be motivated by challenge – as long as it is realistic and they are supported to succeed. Role development can enable people to realise their full potential. ‘Even in a downturn, there are plenty of opportunities for individuals to grow and develop – in fact, it can be the ideal time to ask individuals to step up to the mark,’ says Bailey.

Delegating more, as long as the task in question supports staff to meet individual career goals rather than it just being an excuse to dump work on them, can help employees to take on more responsibility – a key intrinsic motivator.

Lift the spirits

A sense of belonging also motivates staff. Strengthen loyalty by asking small teams to work together on a specific project, and ensure that staff socialise and feel included, especially those who work off-site or on their own.

It’s about finding out what success means for them and using it to anchor their enthusiasm

Encouraging ideas is also a vital tool to help increase motivation. "It’s important to ask staff what they think of the business and listen to the feedback. This will help to engage them in the company and, importantly, you," says Langdon. Freer adds that inviting ideas from all staff on important developments makes them feel more responsibility for the company’s direction. "People need to be encouraged to find a solution for themselves, not be led to salvation," he stresses. This helps to transform a culture of ‘learned helplessness’ (in which people wait to be told what to do) into one of innovation, where everyone feels they can suggest possible solutions. This in turn transforms the psychological outlook of individuals from an external locus of control (‘there is nothing I can do, so why bother?’) to an internal locus of control (‘what can I do to make things better?’).

But Freer adds that asking for ideas is not enough. You must actively follow them up and keep individuals updated on their progress, or explain why you are not following them up, thank them for their input and put forward alternatives to improve their overall performance.
Murray says team brainstorming was crucial not only in remotivating her team but in saving her business. "We had a meeting and decided to diversify into placing copywriters and designers rather than NHS staff," she says. "Suddenly everyone was excited, as if we were starting out again. We had something to prove and felt we were in it together."

In fact, the difficult process of boosting the staff’s low motivation levels back up has been strangely rewarding for Murray. "When things aren’t going well it can be demotivating, but it can also be an incredibly effective way of refocusing and getting close to your product or customer again – the purpose of what you do. And that is very motivating."


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