how to manage a burnt-out employee

A reader writes:

I think my marketing assistant might be burnt-out. She gets her work done but just barely — it’s like she’s doing the bare minimum required, rather than bringing any excitement or sense of possibility to the work. She also doesn’t seem fully present in meetings and never really comes to me with questions or ideas like her colleagues do. She’s been a bit like this since she started 18 months ago, but in the last few months it’s gotten worse.

How can I motivate her to get excited about her job and the work we do?

Employee motivation is a tricky thing. On one hand, if you have the right people in the right roles, you shouldn’t have to motivate them; the right people should feel motivated by the work, and in many ways, that’s a test of whether you hired the right person.

On the other hand, that doesn’t let you off the hook for creating the conditions to motivate the right people, which means giving clear expectations and useful feedback, showing them how their work contributes to a larger whole and ensuring they have the resources to do their jobs well. You also need to make sure you’re not doing things that will de-motivate good people, such as yelling, setting ever-moving goalposts, neglecting to deal with problems or otherwise being a difficult manager.

But if you’re confident that you’re holding up your side of things, then it’s time to talk with your employee about what might be happening on her end. In that conversation, you want to do three things:

1. Dig in to what might be going on. Ask for your employee’s perspective because you might find out that she’s feeling overworked or struggling with a particular aspect of the job or even realizing the job isn’t for her. In that case, what you’ve been seeing are just symptoms of a larger problem that needs to be tackled. But if that doesn’t happen…

2. Be transparent. Be explicit about the behaviors that you’d like to see that you’re not seeing. For instance, you might explain that you’d like her to generate more ideas on her own rather than simply executing someone else’s directions, or to be more aggressive about spotting opportunities to get your company’s message out.

3. Show her the bigger picture. Make sure your employee understands how crucial her work is and how it fits in with the larger picture. Talk about how what she’ll accomplish in the next year ties to what the organization is trying to achieve and why that matters.

From there, give her some time to act on your feedback. If you see changes, recognize and reinforce them. (For instance, “I was impressed with how you steered that planning meeting today and brought us to a better solution.”)

But if you don’t see the changes you’re hoping for after this conversation, it might be time to look at whether you have the right person in the role — because ultimately, the right person for the job is someone who will be excited about the work on her own.

This post was originally published at DailyWorth.

{ 86 comments… read them below }

  1. BCW

    I agree mostly. But I guess here is the question. Were things like bringing up ideas in meetings something you have made clear that you expected? Some people are idea people, other people are better at just executing what is needed. Nothing is wrong with either.

    Also, you say she is doing the bare minimum. That is always an interesting complaint from managers. Is there any motivation to do anything more than that? I mean, does your workplace have a reputation of not promoting and recognizing good work? Because if so, I’d argue that there is no reason for her to do more than what she needs to do to get by. Its like the office space thing with pieces of flair. If you hired her and told her she needs to do 10 tasks per week, and she is doing 10 tasks per week, even if those tasks aren’t done until 4:58 on Friday, then its not really fair to be mad that she is doing 10 tasks because Jane is doing 12. I’ve noticed many managers give their expectations, and when someone meets those, they are mad because they aren’t exceeding them.

    1. Anonymous

      does your workplace have a reputation of not promoting and recognizing good work? Because if so, I’d argue that there is no reason for her to do more than what she needs to do to get by.
      +1000

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      Sure. But it’s also true that you can have situations where it’s not that the person isn’t doing enough pieces of work, but rather the way they’re approaching the pieces they’re doing — kind of lackluster and bare minimum effort. In a culture that expects more than that, that’s a problem.

      And yes, I agree that part of all this is that you need to recognize great work. But plenty of places do and still encounter employees like the one in the question.

      1. BCW

        I see your point, but again, if your bare minimum effort is getting what YOU said were your expectations, why does it matter? Its just perception then, right? I mean if I can do work twice as fast as my co-workers, so I slack off a lot but still get the same amount and quality of work done, and I’m getting the same pay, why should I bust my butt do to more when its not necessary? My bare minimum and someone else’s extra effort could lead to identical results, so why should I be judged harshly for it?

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          It’s not about quantity of work — it’s about how you’re operating within that work, since that affects the final results (in many types of jobs, not all — if it doesn’t, then this would be irrelevant). See my response to Anon below for more on this.

        2. Joey

          I completely agree with you. I think far too many managers aren’t really happy with the expectations they set unless they see you busting your hump. If that’s the case raise the standards. But don’t complain about the standards that are being met when you set them.

          On the other hand, if you’re just meeting the minimum standards you’d better not be pissed when you don’t get a raise or a promotion. That is a different standard that can’t always be articulated exactly. Frequently it depends on the performance of others. And sometimes they will contribute more regardless of what was expected.

    3. Anon

      I tend to agree – if the expectation is xyz, and I’m doing xyz, then really how upset can you be? If you want me to do xyz + abc, then make that the expectation and I will do that. I don’t think it’s fair to “punish” or reprimand people who are doing the functions of their job but aren’t excited about it. Being excited is an unfair expectation IMO.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        It’s not about being excited. It’s about taking real ownership of your work — spotting problems/potential problems and devising solutions, finding better ways of doing things, driving the work forward yourself, etc.

        And yes, managers should make it clear that they expect people to approach their jobs in that way — ideally during hiring, but if not then in a feedback conversation like the one I advise in this column.

        1. jfq

          If that’s the case–that the manager wants more–then the employee isn’t doing the “bare minimum” any longer, and it’s up to the manager to set that expectation.

          The “bare minimum” must be defined in a way that if people meet it, they and their work are considered perfectly fine for the role they are in; otherwise, it’s simply not the bare minimum.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            Yeah, I’m using “bare minimum” to mean completing assigned projects but just that — i.e., without any of what I talk about above. It might not be the best term to use for the context here.

          2. NylaW

            Agreed. But there are often expectations and then “expectations.” The problem is that sometimes bosses want the latter and only state the former.

      2. AB

        Being proactive and taking initiative where it matters are often important behaviors for many jobs, and particularly for creative and marketing positions, like the one that generated the question. This should be part of the expectations that are communicated to the employee, and becomes part of feedback and evaluation processes.

        I’m in total agreement with AAM’s advice, and would add that in my experience, #3 is what’s frequently lacking most (show the employee the bigger picture).

        Too often managers fail to communicate the importance the work someone is doing has for the larger picture. In the absence of clarity about the purpose, is very easy for employees to feel demotivated about “the stupid tasks of updating Twitter or coming up with new ideas to generate word of mouth” or whatever tasks the marketing assistant is supposed to perform.

        1. LOLwhut

          I disagree to a point. Working in marketing, I can tell you no marketing associate worth the title would mind working with Twitter or coming up with ideas to generate business. But there’s only so many times you can hear:

          – That’s stupid
          – I don’t like that (can’t tell you why, just don’t like it)
          – We don’t have the money for that (even if it’s $500)
          – We’ll talk about it later (repeat)

          You hear that enough and you give up trying. I’ve seen it and I’ve been through it.

          In addition, marketing is not an exact science. Some ideas take off and some flop, and you can’t know until you’ve tried it. Too many employers hold your failures against you, even if you gave it an honest try. So where’s the incentive?

          1. Holly

            OH MY GOD YES.

            I hear those above bullet points almost daily. At some point, your motivation is just gone. You are done. I mean, why kill yourself excelling at all of these projects when the feedback you get is so poor, or it’s not possible because there’s zero budget, or they say they like it today but hate it tomorrow for no reason whatsoever?

            1. AprilA

              This x45 million. For me, there is one particular task I have to complete that just doesn’t work. It’s not an effective tool. Yet, the boss loves it. But, I know for a fact that the boss only skims it and doesn’t actually read it because I have to read it and notice glaring errors (that I don’t have the authority to fix). Not only that, it’s the biggest time sink and a pain to chase after everyone to gather the data (which, as above, is frequently wrong). I have made a multitude of suggestions on how we can streamline the process to make it faster, more “user friendly”, and more accurate. The boss’ response is always, but everyone loves it so much… (the only reason everyone “loves” it is because there was nothing there previously and a subpar something is better than nothing).

          2. AB

            LOLwhut, I used examples from things I heard from entry-level marketing people who were feeling demotivated, but this is beside the point–I don’t want to argue that my examples were necessarily good. The point, actually, is that sometimes even grunt work can be satisfying if you know how it contributes to the big picture (I’ve seen this small change happen very well).

            I think what you are talking about is different: being punished for trying new things, getting your ideas shut down all the time without even an attempt to hear or try them out etc. It doesn’t look to be the case here, as the letter writer says the person never was very proactive from the beginning.

          3. Jennifer

            Hah, yeah. I’ve learned to not ever offer suggestions about anything at work, even if they ask everyone, even if they ask me specifically. They don’t want to know, they don’t want to hear it, they are going to do what they want to do and our suggestions do not matter.

            1. Clever Name

              Seriously. A former coworker of mine warned me not to give any suggestions to the Big Boss because, despite saying they are open to suggestions, they really are not. When I much later mentioned this to the Big Boss (after coworker had moved on), Big Boss replied, “Well, but her ideas were all bad”. Yeah. I’ve stopped going to status check-in meetings with the Big Boss because there really is no point to them.

          4. Elizabeth West

            My sister is in marketing and she would agree with you. She gets a lot of that from managers, along with “I know I asked you to do this and you just spent six days on it, but can’t we [insert stupid idea here] instead?”

    4. AprilA

      I think we should do away with the phrase “bare minimum” you can meet expectations, you can exceed expectations or you don’t meet expectations.
      If someone’s work in terms of quality, quantity, effort, or results is not what you want, they are not meeting your expectations. Period. To expect every employee to exceed your stated expectations is setting an impossible standard and an ambiguous goal (at what point is the employee actually meeting expectations? Is the new goal to always do better than the stated goal? How much better?).
      It would be like giving someone a budget, and then you are upset that they stayed just within the budget rather than coming $1000 under budget.
      If the LW’s employee is completing the required tasks and assignments, but the effort put into the work is sub-par, then the work is not meeting expectations, and the manager needs to clearly define what those expectations are. She can’t just say, “Jane, put these graphs into a PowerPoint” and then be upset that Jane put the graphs into a slide but didn’t add animation or pictures.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Yep, you’re right. I should stop using the phrase “bare minimum” in contexts like this. What the manager was describing is work that doesn’t meet her expectations. It’s subpar.

      2. bearing

        What I think is problematic about the phrase “doesn’t meet expectations” is that it is often used as-is to mean that the employee is at fault. However, the employee’s not meeting expectations could be because management has failed to communicate them clearly. Distinguishing between stated and unstated expectations makes a big difference.

        1. AprilA

          That’s what I meant when I said you have to be clear about expectations. Of course it’s always better to simply start off being clear, and for employees to get clarification on any ambiguities. But, no one’s perfect. If you give direction and don’t get back the level of work you were expecting, you need to re-clarify for the employee. If it’s a one-off or infrequent occurrence, then it’s just something that happens sometimes and shouldn’t be given much thought. If it’s continually happening or increasing in frequency, then it’s time to evaluate the issue. Is it a communication problem on the manager’s side? Is it a motivational or burnout issue? Is the employee the wrong fit for the role? etc

  2. thenoiseinspace

    It’s worth pointing out that the job may not be the problem at all. Often, personal problems can negatively impact employees, and I’m sure everyone’s been through a rough patch where the minimum was all they could manage. Of course, that’s short-term – if the employee is like this long term (as seems to be the case with this OP), that’s different, but just thought it was worth saying.

    1. ExceptionToTheRule

      It’s certainly worth a conversation. Some people are dealing with long term issues that are soul-sucking and need to be told that they’re dropping one of the balls they’re juggling. Not everyone is self-aware enough to notice on their own.

      1. Ruffingit

        Agreed. Could be the employee is suffering from chronic mild depression for example, which would explain why she’s been this way from the beginning and why it’s getting worse. Whatever the problem though, it’s definitely worth the conversation with the employee to let her know that she’s not doing what’s expected. That can sometimes kick start people into getting treatment for whatever the underlying problem is once they know that someone has noticed that though they are functioning, they are not thriving/meeting expectations or whatever.

        1. Ellie the EA

          I was thinking along these lines too – could her mom have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, could her aging father have moved in because he can’t take care of himself, etc.

  3. LOLwhut

    Agree. In addition, she may not be burnt out, but just uninspired. It happens in places that give out the bare minimum in pay, vacation and benefits, don’t provide any training or encouragement, and never recognize good work but pile on criticism.

    Not saying that’s the OPs company, but it’s a possibility. Companies have a tendency to expect A+ work in C- working conditions, and never figure out why they get a bunch of disengaged zombies.

    1. Anon This Time

      I agree with LOLwhut that it may be lack of inspiration. I’m experiencing it myself. But in my case, it’s not that I have poor benefits or vacation, but I’m definitely getting tired of being told how valuable I am and how lucky the company is to have me–and not having it represented in my paycheck. I was *finally* awarded a “long overdue,” according to 2 supervisors, promotion and raise–but it’s not going into effect until next year (I’d previously been told November 1) to save quarter costs and supposedly try to help everyone get the full bonus payout. If my 2014 bonus payout does not increase to the new percentage of my 2014 promotion (which I doubt it will, as the bonus is based on 2013 performance and presumably the 2013 salary), then my bonus amount will likely be less than or equal too what I would have made in the salary.

      Then I checked out the latest version of the org chart to find out that another person with my same title, who has been with the company less time than me and whom at least one supervisor had mentioned he felt was not as strong an employee as I, did have a promotion, and presumably raise, go into effect this quarter.

      It’s aggravating and demoralizing. For the sake of my own reputation I’m trying to maintain some level of enthusiasm, but it’s hard. (And yes, I am looking for other positions. Still not the greatest economy for my field.)

  4. Lisa

    My boss always says ‘we all should…’ rather than addressing the problem employee. If the expectations you have are not about the work, but attitude of how they approach work, you need to tell your employees that otherwise they think they are doing all their tasks and are fine. The employee probably needs more guidance in terms of how to show what you want. Ask for real-world things — x number of ideas per week or bring me solutions for this problem

    Out-right tell the employee that you are giving them room to forge their own path with ideas / questions / and becoming an expert on something that the business needs, and that is the type of employee that will be rewarded in the future.

  5. J

    What if the work is mundane and repetitive? Is it reasonable to expect someone to be motivated and enthusiastic about it? Wouldn’t doing the job accurately and efficiently be more than satisfactory?

    Disclaimer: I’m definitely a little jaded by performing job duties that a monkey could do.

    1. Jennifer

      Hah, seconded. I don’t think bouncing enthusiasm should be a requirement for a lot of jobs, especially the ones for peons.

    2. Anonymous

      All the call centres I’ve worked at have expected their employees to be really enthusiastic and excited about work. When really they should be glad that they still have a few workers who are sober at work!

      1. bearing

        I would think that at a call center the ability to fake enthusiasm and excitement would, in fact, be an asset.

          1. Kelly L.

            Oh, was that the trick? I wish someone had clued me in. Wine would have immensely improved my call center experience. ;)

    3. Ask a Manager Post author

      To be clear, my advice isn’t about how the employees feels. She can feel however she wants; what I’m concerned about (and what the manager should be concerned about) are the behaviors she’s displaying — the actions she is or isn’t taking. And that’s where the conversation should focus.

  6. The IT Manager

    I don’t know that the description of the employee makes me think burn out since she was never much of a high performer to begin with. I associate burn out with people performing at a high level at the expense of their energy and excitement.

    I do think that since she was never that enthusiastic to begin with that it could be personal issues that are distracting her.

    1. Lindsay J

      Yes, this didn’t sound like burnout to me either since the OP said that the employee has been this way since she was hired. Burnout would be a previously good employee’s production taking a nosedive.

  7. Holly

    That awkward moment where you work in Marketing, started a year and a half ago and realize the last few meetings you’ve been tuning out because you’re also burnt out.

    I mean, I don’t think my manager wrote this, but..

    1. LEB

      Same here! I actually wondered if someone in my office wrote this about me, even though I thought I was highly enthusiastic at the start and still think that I have an upbeat attitude, even if I am overworked.

  8. Lar

    I have had similar experiences with employees that seem to be stagnant when it comes to their work. Having a direct conversation about the root of the problem has always worked best for me. I don’t approach this conversation as “shape up or ship out” talk but rather a means for me to figure out what motivates this individual. Since we all respond to different motivators, one doesn’t necessarily fit all. Achievement, recognition, skills growth, and responsibility have all worked with different employees. One of my staff loves to be the go to person to learn new tasks and be the person to train others while another simply wants a goal to strive to achieve. If I did not know the motivators for these two staff they wouldn’t have near the interest in their work and I would have two lessor employees.

    1. AB

      That’s something I have to repeat over and over to managers I consult for.

      So great to see a manager who understand that people have different motivations. Some managers think that because they like public praise, his shy reports will like to receive public awards, or because they are very competitive, his non-competitive reports will respond well to a contest. Sigh.

      1. Anonymous

        Public awards are the worst. I wish more managers understood people are motivated by different things. Public awards motivate me to slack off a little just in case, so I don’t get an award… yuck.

        1. Vicki

          You’ve reminded me of English class in my senior year in HS. If you got an A on your essay, you “got to” read it aloud to the class.

          I worked quite diligently to maintain a B average that year in English. Conveniently, the teach and I tended to have difference of opinion, so I just made sure that she disagreed with my p.o.v. in each essay.

          Seriously? Reading aloud to the class was not an “award”.

    2. Clever Name

      This is really brilliant. Even decent managers tend to think that everyone wants to be rewarded the same way they themselves want to be rewarded.

  9. FD

    I think it’s important to distinguish between true job burn-out and other personal factors masquerading as burn-out.

    Sometimes, a person has a lot of personal stuff going on. They may be depressed or have some major stresses in their personal life that might be using up all their energy so that they don’t have much left over for work. In that case, sometimes once the personal factors are dealt with, the person’s ability to produce good work will be back up to par.

    If it’s true burn-out though, the person may just be sick of the work itself. It happens, even with the most interesting job. A person can get to the point where they have an almost visceral dislike of everything around them at work, however irrational it might be. I’ve been burnt out in a job before and I got to the point where the sound of the phone ringing made me want to smash it into pieces. In that case, it might be kindest to have an honest conversation with the employee, let them know that you can tell they really aren’t happy with this job, and suggest they start thinking about job hunting for a position somewhere else.

  10. LabRatnomore

    The first thing I noticed is that the “burnt out” employee has been that way since she started 18 months ago? That doesn’t sound like she is burnt out, it sounds like the wrong person was hired in the first place; this may not be the best job for her.
    If you do have employees that are doing the bare minimum or are burnt out one thing you can certainly look at, like the other commenters said, is are the working conditions ones that encourage above minimum performance.
    Here are some examples from a burnt out employee. I sometimes feel like I am not giving enough at work. Why? Well I have a boring and tedious job. I used to be able to plow through the work, now I get so bored and frustrated that I just can’t get as much done no matter how hard I try (I think that is truly burnt out). Also I was considered a high performer in my previous position, but what was my reward? I got a lateral move to a new function where I now do solely the portion of my job that I like the least. The parts that I really enjoyed and was good at didn’t come with me. On top of that my former group decided 9 months after I was gone that they needed a supervisor (a higher pay grade than mine), and promoted from within instead of opening up the position which I was hoping for so that I could apply for it. The person who got the job was my backup, and in a lower grade than me when I left the group. Besides all this I have continually asked for additional responsibilities as I have plenty of extra time to add things to my day, and maybe make it less boring in the process. I have gotten no other tasks and still spend most my day bored. Not a great way to motivate me to push through my work each day. Man now I really feel like a slacker!
    When promotions are given based on being in the right place at the right time rather than being based on things like knowledge, performance and leadership abilities you are not providing conditions for high performance. If employees are asking for more work and additional responsibilities but you don’t give them anything, not a good way to motivate higher performance. When you move people around because it is easier than hiring for a position, rather than ensuring you have the right person for the job; not a condition to encourage high performance. The person who could do the job the best isn’t always the best person for the job.

  11. Betsy

    “…if you have the right people in the right roles, you shouldn’t have to motivate them; the right people should feel motivated by the work, and in many ways, that’s a test of whether you hired the right person.”

    While I agree with most of the advice given, this statement bothers me a bit. You talk a lot about how we should all stop talking about a “dream job.” The idea of the “right employee” feels like a similar dream in a lot of places.

    I’ve been involved for the last 5 months in a job search that is making zero progress because we are looking for the “right employee”, who is a figment of everyone’s imagination, in my opinion. Everyone agrees we want someone technically strong, energetic, and passionate, with good soft skills, the ability to work on limited information, and the desire to learn.

    But the reality of the opportunity is that it’s at the kind of company that doesn’t attract those kinds of employees. Sometimes, you have to accept the nature of the candidate pool you will attract and make trade-offs. Maybe you can get either a motivated candidate or a technically strong one, and you have to decide what matters to you more.

  12. tango

    Since the OP says the worker has always been like this to a degree, I don’t think it’s really true burn out. I think it’s a not very motivated employee, who over time has become even more bored, disengaged, uninterested, whatever who just does what they can to get by. It’s not like an employee who started out gangbusters, worked 60 hours weeks for a year plus doing excellent work and now is slacking off. Or produced superb work in a 40 hour week who has let quality slide noticeably.

    Maybe their work ethic is such they don’t care to put in much effort, no matter how excited they are by a job. They put in a bit more at the start to ward off possibly being fired but have become comfortable and just cruise by now thinking their job is safe. Some employees just don’t care. And it’s not because the pay, benefits, vacation time off, etc, suck. OR she took this job to pay the bills and dislikes it. And nothing the supervisor or company can do about motivating an employee who just doesn’t care for the work.

  13. Mallorie, the recruiter

    This is so interesting, especially the comments – seems like there are a lot of people who are there (or have been) in job they just can’t ‘care’ too much about. I can totally relate. BUT, the place where I think I disagree with some is that I don’t think it is asking too much of employees to bring some excitement, enthusiasm, and caring to the job. Now, I know that can be tough. I have absolutely been in jobs where I hated it and would feel really ‘burnt out’ and in a funk for weeks. But I would really make the conscious effort to snap out of it and attack the job with a new sense of enthusiasm, and it really helped. Once employees ‘give up’ it can really all go down hill – especially in regards to their own development and job performance.

    1. Sarah

      I think it can be asking too much to bring excitement to every job. Some people don’t have personalities where excitement is something they’ll muster for a job. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for jobs to exist where doing the work acceptably is sufficient, and excitement is not a job requirement.

      I understand that some jobs will require excitement and enthusiasm, and if you are not a person who gets excited and enthusiastic over jobs, you should avoid them. But not every job should require that you come to work filled with glee at the thought of the day ahead of you.

      1. Joey

        Why isn’t it okay to require excitement? I can’t think of one job where I wouldn’t want an employee showing me he’s excited about his work through his behaviors. You don’t genuinely have to feel excited you just have to show the behaviors.

        1. anonymous

          Man, that would be an enormous demotivator to people who don’t naturally express public excitement, though. You mean you don’t pay enough attention to know I’m putting effort into my work unless I make a big arm-waving display at you?

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            Ah, but it’s not about arm-waving displays. It’s about being actively interested in your job, spotting ways to do things better, driving work forward without someone else needing to push it forward, etc.

        2. Sarah

          I don’t really have a problem with one particular employer requiring excitement, but it’d be unfortunate if every job in the world required it. You’d want a sales person to show excitement and enthusiasm, but do you really require it of the person who cleans your toilets? Or can they just clean the toilet and not worry about looking like they’re enjoying it?

      2. Del

        Equally, some people have personalities where they are very unlikely to show what excitement they do feel. I’m like this — I suffer from “resting bitchface” and tend to be very quiet and focused on my work, so it’d be easy for someone just taking quick glances to think that I really don’t care, when I’m actually pretty engaged in what I’m doing and think my job is cool.

        1. Joey

          It’s the difference between being a robot who does exactly what they’re told vs someone who is actively looking for ways to improve things. I heard a great phrase on another blog, its giving “discretionary effort.”

  14. ThursdaysGeek

    I’m burnt out and demotivated to try to get my work’s version of IE to show the DailyWorth page with it’s new blinky ads that kill IE rather than show any content. :(

  15. Clever Name

    I agree with the others that this really doesn’t sound like a case of burnout if the employee has already been like that. Even so, before you think about “how do I motivate this specific employee”, look at the work environment as a whole and make sure there aren’t factors that inherently de-motivate employees. Here are a few:

    -Lack of clear expectations. Alison touched on this in her answer. Make sure that your expectations of your employee are not only specific, but are also communicated to her in such a way that you are sure she knows what is expected of her. Nothing is worse than being told you aren’t living up to an expectation that you didn’t even know about.

    -Changing goalposts. Alison has talked about this before. Management needs to set priorities and make sure they don’t change unreasonably often. It’s really de-motivating to bust your ass on a huge project only to be asked, “Why were you working on this? You should have been working on this other thing.”

    -Lack of recognition. Recognition can mean different things to different employees. Some want money, some want public praise, some want private praise, etc. An example of a lack of recognition from my own working life is to work for months coordinating a team of people to produce a huge 400+ page document only to hear crickets when you turn it in. Literally not even a “thanks” in an email.

    -Poor communication. This is key. Employees are not mind readers. If you want an employee to do something, stop doing something, to act in a certain way, to adhere to certain rules/procedures, you have to TELL THEM. Explicitly. Don’t expect an employee to automatically know how to navigate a maze of a server to find some SOP that they don’t know exists. If you want an employee to be a creative problem-solver, tell them, hopefully in an interview.

    -Lack of fit. Make sure you hired the “right” person. If you want a creative problem-solver, but you hire a workhorse “git-er-done” type person, that’s a bad fit. If you hire someone expecting they will bring in work, or will lead a team of people, lay that out in the interview and look for a track record of accomplishments highlighting that they can do those things.

    -Abusive leadership. Does management treat employees like children? Do they yell? Do they make work criticisms personal? Do they generally treat people like crap? All are incredibly de-motivating (not to mention make people jump ship as soon as they can).

    This is only a partial list, obviously. I’m sure others can add more (like unnecessary bureaucracy that makes it impossible to get anything done, lack of resources-time or money- to do your job effectively, etc.).

    1. Lora

      Re: Lack of fit, one of my friends calls this Racehorse vs. Donkey. Donkeys are for pulling heavy loads, racehorses are delicate creatures capable of incredible feats. Both are needed and have their place, but some managers like to hire racehorses because they look cool and prestigious. Managers of racehorses often get frustrated with the sensitive nature of their charges, and long for animals that are more reliable when it comes to delivering metrics. But in order for things to run smoothly on the ranch, you gotta keep the racehorses in the paddock, the donkeys in the.cornfield.

  16. Sunflower

    Take an honest look at the situation and company. Is there actual room for growth or is this it for her? I was pretty unmotivated about my job until someone in the company got straight up with me. I’m not suggesting you do this but a director told me she knew this wasn’t my dream job and I would never stay with the company forever but I should use my time to build my skills and resume. Fact is, my company is small and is never going to be the type of place the majority of the employees stay at long-term. This isn’t a secret to anyone in the position or anyone higher-up. So now I go out of my way to do things that will add to my individual worth and also help the company out. It’s a win-win situation for both of us.

    People are motivated by things that will help them. Maybe if you try to help her understand how putting in the extra effort is going to help HER in the long run, she might end up with some great new ideas that will benefit both of you.

  17. burnt out marketing assistant

    Wow. This question is almost exactly describing me. I’m a marketing assistant, about to hit my one year mark and I have zero motivation. It may come off to others that I do the “bare minimum” but the reality is that I don’t get enough work. A lot of times I’ll only be assigned 1-2 tasks that I can finish within 2-3 hours and they won’t be due til at least a day or two later. I have tried to ask for other projects to work on and I’ve tried coming up with my own tasks but those also are quickly done and then I’m just sitting there…at least I have time to read this blog everyday though :-) I’ve had to slow myself down so much to the point that it somewhat does depress me, realizing how much time is being wasted but worry if I work at my actual speed my hours will be cut to part -time and I can’t afford to do that. Another part of my burnt out feeling has to do with the fact that they try to pay me as little as possible which makes me feel undervalued and I don’t see the point of trying anymore. I was excited for a short period after one of the marketing executives left the company since I was hoping to get new tasks……that didn’t happen. The only thing that’s been keeping me here that I LOVE is the fact that I can telecommute…I work from home 2-3 days a week now and there are not set hours of when to leave or come in which I know I am going to have a hard time parting with.

    1. anon

      I also had a job where I had very little to do. The boredom was agonizing! If you’ve tried asking for more work over and over, and it just isn’t there, use your time to do other things. Do your work, be available, actively participate, but don’t just work slowly and die a slow death. Use your time for other things too. Consider it “research.” Listen to audiobooks, teach yourself new skills, look into job opportunities.

  18. JCC

    Only doing work when there is work to do, stopping when the task is accomplished (i.e., the “bare minimum”), is called “Just In Time” — it’s a popular business strategy. :)

  19. Cassie

    I had a discussion with my HR friend about whether employees need to have/exhibit “passion” for their work or not. I don’t think it’s necessarily “passion” – if your job is to process invoices all day, I don’t expect you to get all excited about it. But I would expect the “discretionary effort” that Joey mentions above, and what AAM mentions upthread about taking ownership of the work and all that.

    I think I have that in spades when it comes to my work, and I think my boss appreciates it. I can spot when other coworkers lack it (especially when they keep making the same mistakes again and again, and nobody notices until an audit comes along). The problem is that there is no way to reward an excellent employee who exhibits this discretionary effort – we can’t really give bonuses or incentive awards. And the one time (in the past 10 years) that the university allowed bonuses, there were some managers who felt that they needed to be fair and equal to everyone and essentially divided the bonuses equally among all staff. So what’s the point of being an excellent employee if you get the same as a sub-par employee?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Well, reputation, for one thing. You almost certainly have a better reputation than those coworkers, which can be a huge help when it comes to things like future jobs.

  20. Bec

    Ask a manager: you sound like you are expecting leadership & real initiative from your employee. She sounds like the kind of person that needs to be shown ow to be pro-active. You might need to give Hera project where she is the leader & needs to come up with the idea and plan of how to bring thatideato life. She may just be bored with her role. Perhaps IV her ome more exciting tasks, also ask yourself how excited you would be to be doing her job. If you wouldn’t be excited or enthusiastic about the role you can’t really expect her to be.

  21. Zzz

    Hmmm. Most people work to get pay check. It is managers’ job to set expectations that reasonably match employees’ compensation. A worker meeting “bare minimum expectation” is a good worker justifying his/her pay – not everyone wants to get raise or promotion.

  22. Been There, Done That

    I think others have touched on this, but the word “enthusiasm” makes me consider that this could be the difference between introverts and extroverts. In my experience, managers equate enthusiasm for the job with (figuratively) shaking pompoms at work. People with more low-key or reserved work style demonstrated their enthusiasm with their engagement with their work leading to positive results. But if the manager thinks the results don’t count unless the employee turns cartwheels at the same time, the employee is screwed and the manager needs to appreciate diversity in work style.

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