Unmotivated Employees – Is It Your Fault or Theirs?


HBS Working Knowledge has an article about why employees are unmotivated. Here is an excerpt.

The great majority of employees are quite enthusiastic when they start a new job. But in about 85 percent of companies, our research finds, employees' morale sharply declines after their first six months-and continues to deteriorate for years afterward. That finding is based on surveys of about 1.2 million employees at 52 primarily Fortune 1000 companies from 2001 through 2004, conducted by Sirota Survey Intelligence (Purchase, New York).

The fault lies squarely at the feet of management-both the policies and procedures companies employ in managing their workforces and in the relationships that individual managers establish with their direct reports.

How they came to this conclusion based on those results escapes me. It seems like a non sequitur.

Hold on before you get riled up and leave a comment about how bad managers can be. I agree that they hold a significant proportion of the blame for poor employee performance. Many managers create horrible work environments that demotivate and suck employees of any energy and initiative they can muster. But managers don't hold all the blame, and that is my beef with this article.

Look at another quote from the piece.

To maintain the enthusiasm employees bring to their jobs initially, management must understand the three sets of goals that the great majority of workers seek from their work-and then satisfy those goals:

  • Equity: To be respected and to be treated fairly in areas such as pay, benefits, and job security.
  • Achievement: To be proud of one's job, accomplishments, and employer.
  • Camaraderie: To have good, productive relationships with fellow employees.

Sure, this is true for some. Other workers want to do the bare minimum to get their paychecks. Some just want to put in their hours and get home to their families. Reasons for working and expectations for a work environment vary as much as do the personalities of workers.

Now, in general, I believe that managers and workers are both guilty of the Fundamental Attribution Error, which is "the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based, explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing the role and power of situational influences on the same behavior. In other words, people tend to have a default assumption that what a person does is based more on what "kind" of person he is, rather than the social and environmental forces at work on that person." Therefore I think that by adapting management style and work environment to individuals, you can maximize their performance. But there are still constraints. Think of it this way – I can tweak my Nissan Frontier to make it much faster, but it will never go 200 mph.

So while I am in general a believer in the fact that managers do a lot to make employees miserable and unmotivated, I think the HBS article is one-sided because it does not put any blame on the employee. The article reads like one of those love stories that makes you think every minute of your relationship with someone has to contain passion and inspiration or else you are doing something wrong.

Employees sometimes do lousy work and they can't blame management every time they lose the idealism with which they started the job. The excuse can become a crutch to support their sub-par performance. It can be an excuse to avoid looking at themselves and admitting that they can't get things done. For an example, take my first job at a fast food place. I worked hard for minimum wage ($4.25/hr). Other employees would often say "why do you go so fast" or "why do you let them take advantage of you by always staying late when they ask?" Then they would add "if they are only going to pay me $4.45 an hour (or however much they made) that is all the harder I'm going to work." One year later I was a shift manager making $2/hr more than most of the people that had been there longer than me. I guess they were waiting to be promoted to shift manager before they were willing to show that they were capable of doing the job.

In my engineering days, I once designed an interface to a chip in an afternoon that my boss thought would take me most of a week. When asked how I did it, I explained that I just really liked that challenge and was "in the zone" when I was working on it. Then I was asked to verify the pinout for a part and it took me most of a day when it should have taken me an hour. Knowing my desire to run my own company one day, my boss told me that the if I ever wanted to be successful I had to learn to attack the boring tasks with as much enthusiasm as I attacked the fun tasks. It is one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received, and also one of the most difficult to follow.

The point of this is that employees and managers both share the blame on this one. It's easy to sit back as an employee and talk about how much more you could do if you were incentivized properly. That's why so many people do it – because it is easy. It's easy to sit back as a manager and expect employees to do their jobs regardless of the environment because that is what you pay them to do. Again, this is a popular attitude because it is easy.

Motivation is a two way street. The way to look at it isn't to discuss why you are or aren't motivated. The way to look at it is to realize how helpful motivation is to success and then figure out how to get motivated. Building up your own discipline and your own personal internal demand for excellence will get you much farther in life than whining about your work situation.

So if you are a manager, take the HBS article to heart and try to create a motivating work environment. But if you are the one being managed, don't let a poor environment be an excuse because that is a sure step towards a career of mediocrity.

  • Rob,

    I agree wholeheartedly with Skip that it’s all about teamwork. That’s why it is vitally important to hire as much for attitude as skill set.

    And one of the reasons I like Good To Great (no offense): First Who, Then What is always good advice.

  • It is less of a “who’s to blame” and more of a “why are they unmotivated?” Is the company culture at fault or did they just hire the wrong person? I’ve hired people who started out wonderful, but when they figured out that the company was not going to change to fit their concept of “a fun place to work” they lost interest, became unmotivated and, frankly, a liability.

  • In my opinion, the important question is not who is at fault, but what to do about improving the situation before it gets too far out of hand.

  • guinevere

    I couldn’t have been more motivated but now I look at my job solely as what I do to pay the bills. The reason? Soul-sucking poor management. It took 10 years for me to finally succumb to the dark side but here I am patiently awaiting the retirement that will come in 30 odd years.

    Oh, and by the way, I’m creeped out that this website advertises the Mormon faith.

  • Jason

    When I first started my current job, I often got to work 30 minutes before I had to be in. I would fire up my pc, check my mail and then get cracking away at my code. Shortly after, my two best friends started and an old friend was already working with me. The managers (owners) would often plan ‘shit off days’ where we would just basically goof off all day, play xbox 360, table top games, etc.

    For the last several months however, my motivation has dropped. The motivation of my friends has dropped. Were we doing something wrong? For me it was the management. Our employers would often come in acting like they were on the verge of firing us all, being very short with their answers and greetings, etc.

    As a result, our productivity started steadily going down. I had been assigned a month project back in January which I am finally wrapping up now in april. Granted there were several holds ups however, it would have been done a while back. Again, as a result, my employers started getting on my about this and making me feel even worse to the point where I almost walked out of the door.

    Solution: I stopped caring as much about if I got fired. I would allow my self to take several more ‘slack of’ periods throughout the day and just started trying to have more fun. As a result, things are getting better for me… which in turn helps the moral of everyone else.

  • Donna

    I work as university support staff where there is a notoriously bad “corporate’ culture (academics do not care about running efficient operations, their heads are only in the clouds – it’s not like the real world). Half the employees are walking burnouts, myself included. There simply isn’t anything resembling a serious managerial culture here: projects are proposed, assigned (“dumped” is a better word) and then “maintained” indefinitely without any review or re-strategizing. Employees who do bad or indifferent work are never criticized personally; the whole team gets the criticism. Complaining is discouraged; you’re supposed to suck it up and say “yes sir” even when you know the whole operation is a joke and nothing is being done well because of inadequate staffing or funding. This must have been what Soviet Russia was like.

    My job is monotonous, filled with open-ended projects that are impossible to maintain satisfactorily. I get 20 days vacation a year but am able to take maybe a fourth of that because my boss keeps assigning daily tasks that no one is cross-trained on. This whole place is a mess and I hope it collapses soon. When I started out in the work force I was as bright eyed and bushy tailed an overachiever as you could hope to see. Now I do as little as I can get away with, except for short bursts when I feel particularly productive. Believe me, I’d rather be who I was when I was younger, but I’ve found out that you just don’t get rewarded for that sort of thing. You only get rewarded with more impossible tasks. It’s about energy conservation. And hoping against hope that the bad managers creating the culture just… go away. If only there was a way for prospective employees to screen bad managers, the world would be a better place and we could all work to our highest potential more easily.

  • Anonymous


    I think we may work at the same college. :)

  • Trisha

    Is it not the responsibility of the employee to give 110% on a daily basis regardless of whether they work in “optimal” conditions and for the “optimal” manager? No one is perfect, but we owe it to ourselves to know that at the end of each work day we truly gave our best. I expect the same of those who work for me.

  • Chino


    That is valid in the beginning but after a while it gets old. Employees are not synonymous to grade school students who had to “just deal” with having to get permission to go to the bathroom and being under the rule of teachers. A work environment should be one where management isn’t willing to overburn out employees to meet goals. Then every year they goals get further and further from realistic.