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What causes a lack of motivation at work (And how to overcome it)

frowning man with pink hair dealing with lack of motivation at work

Why is motivation so hard to find these days? In Mental Health America's 2019 Mind the Workplace report, 58% of employees reported a lack of motivation at work.

On top of that, Gallup, which has tracked employee engagement since 2000, says that only 35% of workers were engaged in 2019. That means that nearly two-thirds (65%) were not striving to reach their full potential; they were either “not engaged” (putting in the bare minimum) or worse, “actively disengaged” (spreading their misery to other employees). 

So what’s a manager to do? How can you encourage your team members to put forth their best effort at work, rather than barely scrape by?

Let’s get to the root of the problem. Here are five common reasons that employees lack motivation—and what you can do to help.

Table of contents
5 common reasons workers have a lack of motivation at work
You can help your employees overcome a lack of motivation

5 common reasons workers have a lack of motivation at work

Reason #1 They don’t see the meaning in their work.

Knowing that your work makes a difference is essential to feeling fired up about your job. In the 2019 CNBC/SurveyMonkey Workplace Happiness poll, 35% of respondents said that “feeling that your work is meaningful” is the number one factor in overall happiness on the job. That was the top response—a full 15 percentage points ahead of the runner-up: “being paid well.” 

So if an employee feels like what they’re doing at work doesn’t matter, it’s only natural to experience a lack of motivation at work.

Further, one of the 12 factors that Gallup considers when calculating employee engagement is mission or purpose.

“If workers don't feel their job is important, they cannot connect it to a larger purpose,” writes Chris Musser, practice lead for organizational effectiveness at Gallup, “especially those who don't know what their company's purpose is or how it functions in day-to-day operations. Managers, more than anyone else, are the key to helping employees make that crucial connection.”

Solution: Tie their work to your company’s mission.

As a manager, you have a lot of power over how enthusiastic your team feels about their work. Of course, it’s not as simple as calling a meeting and shouting, “Everyone, be motivated!” It helps to show them why they have reasons to be motivated. In other words, reconnect them with your company’s mission.

Ultimately, every job role on your team fulfills that mission in some way—otherwise, you wouldn’t have hired them. So revisit your organization's mission statement and help your team members understand how their specific job relates to it.

One of the best tools to fight a lack of motivation at work is to use a people analytics tool, like F4S, to measure each team member's motivational traits, and ensure that their role aligns with what naturally energizes them.

Reason #2 They aren’t being challenged.

Maybe your team members already understand how their work is tied to the fulfillment of the company’s mission. But another trap lies in wait for any employee—boredom and stagnation.

It’s not enough to have a sense of purpose and feel effective at a job. Humans crave improvement. And the only way to get better is to rise up to a challenge. This is a concept within motivation theory that American psychologist Edwin Locke spent decades researching and honing. His resulting goal-setting theory proposed that one essential element of effective goal-setting is making the objective challenging. Goals that are too easy don’t inspire maximum effort. The key here is to strike the right balance: not so easy that it’s boring, but not so difficult that the employee sees it as unattainable.

Solution: Set bold goals with them.

In a 1979 research paper that Locke wrote with Gary Latham, the two researchers outlined a three-step process that managers can use to set and achieve goals with their team:

  1. Set the goal. Work with your employees to come up with effective goals that get them excited about their work. Locke says that the most motivating goals are ones that are specific and challenging. 
  2. Get your team to commit to the goal. It’s not about pushing a goal upon your team. You must obtain goal commitment; they must agree to and accept the goal.
  3. Provide support. As a manager, you can’t do the work for them, but you can provide them with the resources, tools and encouragement needed to reach the goal, and overcome their lack of motivation at work.

Reason #3 They’re overwhelmed.

Even when employees feel overwhelmed at work, they may not tell you. Much of the time, they’re eager to please their boss and don’t want to appear incompetent if they admit they can’t accomplish something.

Spotting an employee who’s overwhelmed isn’t that difficult. You may notice a change in their performance; maybe they seem frazzled, their typically excellent work is suddenly sloppy or they aren’t meeting deadlines like they used to.

Solution: Lighten their workload.

If it’s clear that an employee is drowning in extra projects, reach out. Let them know what changes in performance you’ve noticed and that you’re concerned about their well-being. Ask them how you can lighten their workload so they can operate at their best. 

Additionally, if many of your workers feel overwhelmed at once, it may be time to evaluate the way you run your team. How can you do better as a boss?

  • Respect work-life boundaries. Do you ask your team to do work on weekends? Do you expect them to respond to your emails immediately? Have you yourself done both of these things? If so, you may (unintentionally) be sending this message to your team: “You need to be ‘on’ at all times.” That will make anyone feel overwhelmed eventually.
  • Check in frequently. Many managers prefer regular one-on-ones (weekly, monthly, even quarterly) to be able to speak in private with their direct reports about goals, struggles and progress. Having this one-on-one time is essential to finding out what’s really going on with your team.
  • Redelegate. If you find that you’ve loaded too many projects onto one of your team member’s plates, spread those tasks around. You have a team for a reason; no one person should bear the weight of the entire department — it will definitely result in a lack of motivation at work over time.

Reason #4 They’re going through a rough patch in their personal life.

Employees’ lack of motivation may have nothing to do with the workplace. Sometimes, we forget that the people we work with have a personal life too, and it’s one that we may not be privy to. 

Also, take into account the importance of addressing mental health in the workplace. A decrease in motivation can be a symptom of a medical condition, including depression. Troubles with mental health are common, but unfortunately, they’re rarely talked about at work. In the 2019 Mind the Workplace report, 55% of employees agreed with the statement, "I am afraid of getting punished for taking a day off to attend to my mental health."

Solution: Show your support and point them to resources.

It is not your job to fix your employees’ personal problems or pry into their private life. What you can do, however, is make sure they’re supported at work and that their job doesn’t add to their already stressful situation. Make sure to create an atmosphere where employees know they will not be punished for needing mental health support.

If your company has an employee assistance program that helps with stress management or crisis situations, point them to that resource. If not, encourage them to talk to their healthcare provider. And if you’re still unsure of what to say, Psychologist Joni E. Johnston offers step-by-step advice for how to talk to a depressed employee

Reason #5 Their needs at work aren’t being met.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a motivation theory that posits there are five levels of needs that must be met to reach one’s full potential:

  • Physiological
  • Safety
  • Love/belonging
  • Esteem
  • Self-actualization

Each need builds upon the one before it; so if, for example, an employee doesn’t feel safe at work, they are not going to focus on self-actualization (reaching their full potential). Therefore, a lack of motivation could stem from a basic need being unmet.

Solution: Figure out which needs aren’t being met and then work to fill them.

To identify which needs aren’t being met, take stock of your workplace and the way you manage your team. Consider the following five areas:

  • Physiological: Are employees able to take regular lunch breaks, or do they feel pressured to work right through their lunch hour? Are they getting enough sleep, or is a particularly arduous project keeping them working late? Is your office building properly climate-controlled, or is it so cold that people are bringing their own space heaters to work? 
  • Safety: Is your team being paid a fair wage so they can feel financially stable? Is their work environment on par with the required safety standards? Is your organization doing everything it can to provide job security, or are employees constantly fearful of losing their jobs without a safety net?
  • Love/belonging: Do you encourage team bonding on a regular basis? Do you host team building activities to strengthen relationships? Can your direct reports rely on you for support at work?
  • Esteem: Do you regularly thank your team members for a job well done? Is there a formal recognition program in place at your company? Do you give feedback to build self-esteem?
  • Self-actualization: Have you helped each team member tie their work back to the company mission and vision? Do you encourage growth within each team member by providing career development opportunities? Do you assign tasks based on ability and interest?

You can help your employees overcome a lack of motivation

As you can see, a lack of motivation doesn’t come out of nowhere. Once you identify the root of the problem, you’re better equipped to fix it.

Getting to the source of a motivation issue is easy when you know where to look. Take advantage of our free evidence-based assessment to instantly find out your employees’ workplace motivations. We’ll even give you the exact language that can motivate (or demotivate) a team member!

Overcome a lack of motivation at work (for yourself or your team) with fast personalized coaching. Get started for free now.

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