Whose job is it to motivate employees?

Dear Joan:
People talk about the paramount importance and the need to keep employees in the organization motivated. Some management gurus also keep saying a monetary allowance is not the only way to keep employees motivated. I understand there could be plenty of ways to keep people in the organization motivated, but can managers practically keep all the employees in the organization motivated? The organization has diversified staff, with heterogonous mindsets, with differences in perception and wants.

Is it necessary for the managers to break their heads in trying to keep people motivated? Does it bring about any positive returns to the organization?  

My belief is, if people are hired to perform what is clearly defined and indicated in their job description, it is his or her own job. Why do managers have to motivate staff to perform their duties, for which they have been hired and paid?  

Some blame it on the selection process ….but where is a foolproof mechanism to ensure the people in the selection panel have all knowledge, skills and ability to select the best candidates? We may not be able to study and understand the people during an hour or two interview sessions.  

When all is said and done, I have reservations about whether the managers have that responsibility to motivate people. If someone fails to do what he/she is supposed to be doing, and/or if someone has a negative attitude toward his or her duties, I would say those kind of people should be dismissed without second thought.


Every manager has probably asked him or herself that same question. Just like every parent has probably wished that their child’s self-motivation and success would take care of itself. While I’m not suggesting that the manager has the same influence over an individual as a parent, I do think there is some basis for comparison, when it comes to nature versus nurture. 

I believe the answer to motivation lies in the combination of three main areas: the person’s internal self-motivation; the manager’s behavior toward that employee; and the work itself. If one or more of these is flawed--the person lacks initiative, the boss is a jerk, or the work is boring or a poor fit—motivation will be a problem. 

First, let’s address the hiring process. Selection interviews are far from scientific. That is why testing has become popular, panel and multiple interviews are used, and behavioral, open-ended questions (used to tie former experiences to job-specific requirements) is considered a best practice. But even though the past is a good indicator of future success and motivation, it’s no guarantee. 

While I agree that everyone is motivated by different things, I do think it’s the manager’s job to find out what trips the trigger for each of his or her employees. For example, for the person who loves challenge, it would be in the best interest of the manager to feed that person varying assignments and opportunities to grow her responsibilities. For the person who just wants to do his job and punch out at five o’clock, the manager should be able to support that, as long as the person is willing to keep up with quality and quantity demands, pitch in during peak times and meet the changing expectations of the job. 

But let’s move beyond the internal drivers and consider what happens when a self-motivated individual is managed by a bully, or a micromanager, or someone who doesn’t pay much attention to anyone but themselves. Even the most self-directed person will begin to be affected negatively over time. And even with an average manager, most people won’t flourish on their own. 

So, to your chicken-or-the-egg question, my answer is “both”. The employee is responsible for applying himself to the job for which he was hired. If he doesn’t meet the basic requirements of the job, the manager has every right to fire the person (provided, of course, that the necessary training and tools have been provided). And to your point about someone with a negative attitude, I agree that attitude is an essential part of job responsibilities—it affects co-workers, customers and teamwork. 

However, it’s the manager’s responsibility to contribute positively to the equation, as well. I have seen many situations where the “negative attitude” was caused by the manager. For example, he should treat employees with respect, value their contributions, communicate expectations and provide feedback. With that, the employee will probably be satisfied. If, however, that manager takes the extra step to discover what each person’s internal motivators and goals are, and then tries to tie those to the work at hand, motivation will soar. After all, isn’t that the added value a manager should be bringing to the mix? If we lived in an ideal world, where everyone was perfectly matched to their work and were completely self-motivated, the manager role would never have been created. 

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, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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