'Are you into it?'

If you are having trouble motivating employees, thinking about how they

would answer this simple question can help you sort it out.

By Anthony Noel

Nothing makes some managers feel inadequate quite like employees who refuse to be motivated. You know the kind I mean. They punch in two minutes after starting time every day, do a just-barely-acceptable job and are first in line at the time clock for the ending buzzer.

They usually miss two or three days of work every month, and it seems they are always looking for an angle and pushing the rules until you push back. They try to figure out exactly where the lines are drawn and what they can get away with, to the point where you find yourself saying, "If he would only work as hard at working as he does at NOT working, he would be one terrific worker!"

You don't understand it. You pay a decent wage. You praise little accomplishments, hoping they will lead to bigger ones. You review the finer points of the craft and watch closely for that glint of enthusiasm in their eyes.

Nothing.

Dealing with unmotivated employees is especially disheartening to serious managers because serious managers tend to read "serious management books." Serious management books convince serious managers that if their employees are not motivated, it is probably the manager's fault.

The serious management book writers who peddle such tripe don't know what the heck they are talking about. The truth is this: You can do many things for your employees. But you can't motivate people unless they want to be motivated.

Robert Townsend, author of my all-time favorite management book, "Up the Organization," put it something like this: "There is no key to motivating people. That door is locked from the inside."

When I need to figure out if someone is an asset or a liability, I imagine that I am a close friend of him or her, sharing a beer on the weekend. I ask, "How do you like your job?" Time and again, in cases with an employee like the one I have just described, my "buddy" replies, "It pays the bills. But I'm just not into it."

When you begin assessing an employee's performance with that as your litmus test - "Is he or she into it?" - hiring, training and managing employees suddenly becomes a whole lot easier. While it seems almost too simple for the times we live in, the bottom line of work has never changed: If you don't like what you are doing - if you are not "into it" - you are not going to do it very well.

Don't beat yourself up if you get bamboozled. There is an endless supply of people out there who talk a good game during the interview, but whose true colors come through within days or weeks. You also may encounter employees who seemed fine at the beginning, but show a lack of commitment after a year or two on the job. Still others will lose interest even later in their tenure.

In both of the last two examples, you will want to do a little digging and find out why their work has fallen off. People who get through the first few months with flying colors but drop off after a year or more may be having problems that have nothing to do with work. Getting them refocused is often worth the time and effort.

Also, in the case of longer-term workers, it is possible they have decided that your workplace is not all it was cracked up to be when you hired them. That can be a tough pill to swallow, but you still want to know about it. Or, they may have fallen under the sway of a "toxic" coworker, who has convinced them there is nothing to be happy about.

Allow me to digress with a few words about toxic employees: Every company has people who cannot be satisfied. If they are unyielding enough with their whining, they can negatively affect those around them. Such employees complain long and loud when no manager is around because they like the sound of their own voices and are too cowardly to register their complaints with someone who might actually be able to address them.

Still, these last few examples are the exceptions. In general, if an employee has a genuine interest in what your company does and is interested in making a meaningful contribution to its success - and his own - you will know it early in his tenure. He will get all the motivation he needs from inside himself and will do the best job he can on a regular basis.

The vast majority of the "not into it" employees tend not to be longer-term workers and show symptoms early in their tenure. Nothing you do to try to bring them around makes much difference.

If you suspect that an employee's poor performance is tied to a motivation deficit, that question - "Is he into it?" - is your best tool for testing your hunch. Once you have determined that the problem is motivational, you can deal with it appropriately.

It is usually best to give longer-term, usually reliable employees a hearing and see what's up. But with newer employees, once you have made the "not into it" determination, it is time to take them into your office and tell them so. Be direct and specific. For example:

"Sam, it's obvious to me from the quality of your work, your lack of initiative, your consistent tardiness, your frequent absences and your disregard for the rules that you're just not into this job." Then zip your lip and see how Sam responds.

He may get very excited and/or remorseful and swear that he IS into it. He may list mitigating circumstances outside of work that have been affecting him. But you don't want apologies or excuses. You want a commitment that he will do better. When you get one - and only IF you do - you then have something you can work with and point to over the next few days and weeks. Hopefully, Sam changes. But don't be surprised if he doesn't, and don't let yourself be conned.

More likely during your little sit-down, Sam is going to remain as distant and disinterested as he is on the shop floor. At that point, it is best to cut your losses. Anyone who can't get excited about a NEW job is generally not going to get excited about the same job a year later. It is time to say, "I'm sorry, Sam, but I can't afford to have anyone on the payroll who doesn't care."

Show Sam the door, wish him luck, get on with your life and let Sam get on with his. If you don't, you could be nurturing a new toxic employee.

Anthony Noel writes and works in New Bern, NC. Send him e-mail at anthonynoel@cox.net.

                                                                                                                                                                                           

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