How to Motivate Challenging Employees

BY Austin Richards
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Not every employee brings a high level of motivation to work on a daily basis. That’s fine — people have "off" days. But what should you do about your challenging employees – the ones who are very capable but never seem motivated?

How to Motivate Challenging Employees

Many managers must decide what to do about employees who possess great technical and soft skills, yet never seem to finish a task. The key cause underlying the lack of productivity is likely motivation. If someone isn’t motivated by any aspect of a task, they aren’t likely to complete it.

Lack of workplace engagement is a critical problem for employers. Nearly 66% of employees, reports Gallup, do not feel connected to their work or their organization.  That statistic, from 2023, is higher than it was in 2020, despite significant effort by employers to improve engagement.

Changing Responsibilities

To understand what your employees are doing on a daily basis, help them audit their task list. Some tasks will be critical, predictable and deadline sensitive. Other tasks, such as dealing with angry customers or handling an urgent trouble ticket, are less predictable.

An employee may find it difficult to shift between routine tasks and unpredictable tasks. One way to understand the best workplace setting for each employee is to review their psychometric assessments. Having this information on challenging employees is especially important.

If you have an individual whose temperament is mismatched with the skills required for part of their position, make a change. Don’t lock into the mindset that job responsibilities have to stay assigned to a specific individual forever.


Paul Nolan, editor of Sales and Marketing Management, encourages managers to think outside the box when it comes to motivation. Is there a way for you to gamify parts of the job?

Customer service agents may appreciate a reward system with points. When they transform the points into cash following successful closure of calls, engagement and motivation will improve.

You may also find that your most challenging employees will step up when gamification becomes part of the workplace routine.

Tackling the Difficult Conversation

None of these changes will occur until you initiate a difficult conversation with your challenging employees. Planning ahead about what you want the outcome to be will help you manage the conversation. Review their psychometric assessments to understand the best way to discuss sensitive issues with them.

It’s likely that this employee knows they have not been performing at the required level. However, they may disagree with you regarding the cause of their engagement problems.

Dr. Thom Mayer encourages managers to consider the situation from the employee’s perspective. They may be frustrated that they didn’t get the promotion they wanted. Or they may see no obvious career path for them. Our research indicates that 38% of managers say their chief source of friction with team members is time commitment.

At the start of the difficult conversation, set expectations. It’s okay to state that you expect disagreement but that you also intend to come to a productive conclusion.

Find one or two work-​related topics on which you and the employee agree. For example, they may be interested in a specific project, and you may need help in that area.

Then ask for their input on setting goals. If you have sufficient flexibility, offer them a potential reward for finishing on time.

Once they reached the goals you have agreed on, set them loose on the reward. It might be spearheading a volunteer committee for charitable work or attending training to expand skills. Again, the reward will be more meaningful if it is customized to their interests.

Your challenging employees may take up your time. But they may also be the catalyst that drives you to think differently about work assignments and company culture. The changes you make will likely boost your bottom line.

Photo by Kelly on Pexels.