Understanding the high cost of unmotivated employees (and how to fix it)


unmotivated employees

Back in 2007, I read an article about how, as Millennials were entering the workforce, a number of businesses were faced with finding ways to reward employees for their achievements. That generation, after all, had grown up with participation trophies and grade inflation, and as employees, they expected recognition at a level previous generations simply hadn’t needed. One company had gone so far as to hire an employee whose sole responsibility was to celebrate her fellow employees, tossing handfuls of confetti at and delivering balloons to individuals who’d had a good day.

As a Gen Xer with parents who frequently stressed that if work was fun you wouldn’t get paid to do it, this seemed unnecessary to me. And when the recession shifted the balance of power in the employee-employer relationship back in the employer’s favor, it seemed like confetti and balloons would be forever a thing of the past.

But “employee engagement” is now a hot topic, with businesses investing big money in ensuring their employees are happier and more motivated. No one is breaking out the confetti at the moment, but companies have good reason to be concerned with how engaged their employees are. Gallup has been tracking employee engagement for years, and while the percentage of employees who are engaged has been increasing, it’s still surprisingly low: In 2015, Gallup reported that just 32 percent of American workers were engaged.

What does it mean for an employee to be “engaged”? Like all buzzwords, this word seems to be tossed around an awful lot without a lot of specifics attached to it. But, in general, an engaged employee is enthusiastic about his or her work and is actively contributing to the workplace. It’s from your engaged employees that you’re likely to get new ideas and improved processes; your unengaged employees are just doing what you ask them to do and collecting a paycheck.

The costs of unengaged employees are staggering. An earlier Gallup report estimated that a lack of engagement costs U.S. businesses between $450 and $550 billion in lost productivity each year. Unengaged employees are more likely to call in sick, get into workplace accidents and make mistakes at work. They’re also more likely to quit their jobs, resulting in costly turnover. Engaged employees, meanwhile, perform 20 percent better than disengaged employees, according to an article on Entrepreneur.com. That same article indicated that companies with a high level of employee engagement perform 202 percent better than other companies, thanks in large part to the fact that engaged employees have higher productivity, higher sales and higher creativity. It’s no wonder that companies are desperate to find the secret to improving their employee engagement.

What About Money?

To me, the answer to employee engagement seemed simple: just pay people more and they’ll care about their jobs.

Of course, there is a link between salary and engagement, and if you’re not paying your employees fair market value, you can expect less-motivated employees and higher turnover. But engagement isn’t just about salary.

“It’s more complicated than that,” explained Joshua Miller. A West Point graduate and former U.S. Army Captain, Miller has held management positions with a number of large businesses and is especially experienced in improving company culture. “Sure, paying too little is a great way to demotivate any employee. But just giving everyone a raise isn’t going to magically turn a company around.”

The Role of Leadership

The importance of good leadership to the bottom line was driven home to me years ago when I was a teenager working at McDonald’s. One of my managers, Vince, was exceptional at motivating employees. We worked harder and enjoyed our shifts more when Vince was working than when some of the other managers were there. Several years later, some friends and I stopped at a different McDonald’s. The dining room was clean, the employees were friendly and efficient, and our orders were ready quickly – a big difference from some of the other McDonald’s stores nearby. I wasn’t surprised to see that the store manager for this particular location was Vince.

I realize that your company is a far cry from McDonald’s, but this perfectly illustrates how important a good leader is. That McDonald’s, like the surrounding stores, was corporate-owned, which meant that Vince was working with pay scales comparable to the other stores. He was hiring employees from the same general area. His employees were doing the same job as employees at other stores, and they were serving the same general clientele. And yet his employees looked happier, worked faster and performed better, all because they had a better leader.

Miller agrees with this assessment. “People work harder for good leaders,” he said. “More importantly, a poor leader can actually turn good employees into bad ones.”

Unfortunately, many businesses tend to promote people to management because they’ve demonstrated proficiency at their jobs rather than looking specifically for employees who have strong leadership skills. This often results in middle managers who lack important leadership skills, increasing the risk of having unengaged employees.

Building Relationships

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to better motivate your employees – and these steps won’t cost you an arm and a leg.

unmotivated employees
Engaged employees have higher sales, higher productivity and higher creativity. It’s from those employees that you get ideas for improving your business.

“Motivating employees starts with building relationships,” Miller explained. “If I have an employee that I feel is underperforming or not accomplishing everything I think he can accomplish, the first thing I do is sit down and talk to him. Not about his job. I ask him about his family and the things he likes to do after work.”

Getting to know your employees on a personal level also helps you learn what motivates your employees. If you have an employee with young children, you may find he or she values having the flexibility (within reason) to attend school or sports functions. Other employees may not care as much about having a flexible work schedule but might care a great deal about having their hard work acknowledged. Other employees may be motivated from having an employer that matches donations to charities the employee supports or that supports fundraisers for causes about which the employees are passionate.

It takes time to build this type of relationship, and some managers don’t appreciate the value of talking to their employees. But employees are motivated by different things. A one-size-fits-all approach won’t be as effective as getting to know them individually. 

Play To Their Strengths

“Once I’ve spoken with an employee a number of times and feel like we’ve developed a solid relationship, I’ll go to him with a project,” Miller said. “This project generally falls under the list of tasks I want the employee to be doing that he isn’t yet doing. But most importantly, it will be a project that plays to his strengths.”

Many managers feel it’s important to have well-rounded employees, meaning employees who are capable of doing many different tasks. Miller doesn’t believe each individual employee needs to be able to do a variety of tasks. Instead, he stresses the importance of a well-rounded team, with employees who excel in their own areas.

“Asking employees to do things that play to their weaknesses is just asking for failure,” Miller said. “Your employee is going to resent having to do something he’s not good at. It’s going to take him longer to do it than someone who’s good at that particular task, and in the meantime, he’s not working on what he is good at. Ultimately, the employee will become less engaged, you’re not utilizing your resources wisely and you’re setting yourself up for failure as a leader.”

As Miller is building relationships with his employees, he’s learning about their strengths and weaknesses.

“If I have an older employee who has little to no computer experience, asking him to develop Excel spreadsheets or take over my social media presence would not end well,” Miller said. “And yet many companies will ask this of their employees simply because someone feels that employee has the time or is in a certain department.

“When I approach an employee about a project or task I need to have handled, I explain that I need that particular employee because of his or her skills or qualifications. And because of the relationship that we’ve built, the employee wants to help out. It ends up being a win-win situation – I get the employee to do a task I’ve wanted him to do, and he gets to do a task that plays to his strengths and showcases what he can do.

“But it all stems from building that relationship in the first place.”

Maintaining the Work-Life Balance

It’s easy to assume that employee engagement isn’t as much of a problem in our industry. After all, most of us love archery and bowhunting, and our jobs often allow us to pursue our passion to an enviable degree. Managers in small businesses also have an easier time building relationships with their employees simply because they work more closely together, so much of what makes employees happier comes naturally to small businesses.

But that doesn’t mean you can stop thinking about employee engagement. For a small business, employee turnover can be especially costly – and exhausting – as there are fewer people to pick up the slack when an employee leaves. And your employees may be disappointed to find that some of the busiest times in many archery businesses correspond to the times when they’d most like to be in the field.

You can’t change when your busy season hits, but it’s important to be aware of your employees’ work-life balance. If you have a good employee putting in long hours or racking up vacation days because he or she never takes any, you may want to stress the importance of taking time away from the business. Sure, it’s on your employee to use his or her vacation time, but you don’t want a good employee to burn out or feel resentful that his or her long hours are going unnoticed.

Featured photo When employees are engaged in their work, a business can be as much as 202 percent more profitable than comparable businesses with unengaged employees. This article was originally published in the July/August 2016 issue of Archery Business magazine.