How do I motivate an older employee?


Dear Joan:
Do you have any articles or advice on motivating older employees who are set in their ways? The person in mind does an acceptable job, but I would like to see more flexibility, as we work on developing a new product. 

I put him on this team to try to inspire more out of him, but it is not really working. Attitude is an issue too. 

Since the employee is pretty well paid, I expect more. I’m not sure how to proceed.  I’d appreciate your advice. Thank you. 

Being older is not an excuse. In fact, I’d like to set it aside as an issue. It doesn’t matter if the person you’re describing has been on his job five years, or fifty, he needs a wake-up call. If he thinks he is “safe,” and the company can’t fire him because he is in a protected class, I have news for him. I’ve seen eight terminations in the past year of people who were over 50 years old—and most of them were good performers who got sideways with their boss. Rather than digging in, he should be digging out of his rigid reputation. An average performance is barely acceptable these days, let alone an average performance coupled with a bad attitude. 

You haven’t elaborated on the details about his “bad attitude.” It makes me wonder if he has some resentment regarding how he was treated in the past…perhaps he feels he was passed over for promotion, or maybe feels his ideas haven’t been listened to in the past. In any event, you would be wise to talk to him about his attitude, how it is hurting him and how it is negatively influencing others. Once you know what is bothering him, you may be in a position to give him some honest feedback (which I suspect he has not received in the past).  

You need to prepare for a straightforward discussion, to try to get some dialogue about what is eating at him. You will also need to be clear about what you want him to change. You will need to articulate the gap between your expectations and his current performance. You will need some specific examples about instances when you wanted him to be more flexible. In addition, you will need some behavioral descriptions about his “attitude.”  

Here is a template for the heart-to-heart conversation. It will take courage, empathy and a willingness to listen. It will also require you to be crystal clear about what you want from him. So be ready with some notes, so you don’t get sidetracked or forget your examples. In addition, tell your manager what you are going to do and ask for his or her support. You need to know that your boss will back you if things escalate.  

“I’d like to have a conversation about something that I’ve noticed… what I would term “discretionary effort.”  It’s not that you do a poor job—you don’t—you do an acceptable job. But with your experience, I am counting on you to be a leader and role model for the people on your team but what I see is more of a negative attitude and a reluctance to break from the way things used to be. What’s going on?”

(Listen and draw out what’s behind the “attitude.”) 

Describe his behavior as if you were playing back a video.
Avoid judging words and try to describe his behavior objectively. For example, “In the last few months, when a new idea was discussed on the project, you often would say something like, “We tried that already,” or, “You really think that will work? You’ve got to be kidding!”  

Describe the negative effect of his behavior, on him and those around him.
“When you make repeated comments about how things won’t work or, criticize other departments, it makes you look rigid and negative. It drags down the entire team. It makes people want to avoid you. It makes me reluctant to assign you to a product team.”  

Solicit his input.
“What can you do to work on this? What can I do to help you?” The key is that he needs to take responsibility for what he can do to change. 

Choose what to do.
He needs to come up with some specific and doable actions. If he can’t, you need to tell him what you want him to do. “I’d like you to explore other people’s ideas, rather than telling them why something won’t work. If you have a concern you feel is important to mention, you can voice it in a question to the group—such as, ‘How can we overcome the problem of x?’” 

In the end, it isn’t your job to motivate him. He needs to find ways to motivate himself. If you have done something to offend him, it’s time for an honest airing of his issue. But the bottom line is he needs to modify his attitude and contribute positively to the efforts of the team. If nothing changes, he needs a clear financial message at salary review time. Hopefully, your honest conversation(s) with him won’t make that necessary. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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