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Unmotivated employees are a challenge
Unmotivated employees are a challenge

The myth of motivation in retail

Can managers motivate employees? DOUG FLEENER believes those who lack the motivation to succeed cannot be taught to do so.

Years ago I had an incredibly talented salesperson working for me. He was smart, charming, a fast learner and one of the best salespeople I ever met but there was one major problem: he was lazy; he did only enough to get by.

I spent an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to motivate him and I could sometimes get a one or two-day bump in his performance. Invariably, however, he would slide back into mediocrity. It drove me crazy. What I didn’t understand at the time is that the ability to motivate others is a myth. Motivation is the desire or willingness of someone to achieve something. The willingness to proactively engage customers has to be something a person likes and wants to do.

You can’t successfully motivate people to do something they don’t want to do. They have to want to do it and, to achieve best performance, often have to enjoy doing it also.

A study by Rochester University psychologist Edward Deci found that students who were offered cash prizes to solve puzzles were less likely to continue working on them after payments had been made, compared to students who were offered no money. Deci’s work helped clarify the relationship between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation – doing things because you want to do them or doing them because you seek a reward.

This is why hiring the right person is so important; offering a motivated person more money could result in higher performance but it will have little or no effect on the unmotivated – if you pay more to a mediocre employee, all you have is a higher-paid mediocre employee. Instead of trying to motivate people, the key is to inspire the motivated and remove the unmotivated. Here’s how:

Make work fun: One of my favourite sayings is, “You can’t ask people to give service with a smile until you give them something to smile about.” The best leaders have the ability to make each day a great experience for their team.

"To show employees you trust them, give them ownership over more important tasks. Make it easier for them to do their jobs"

Make each day challenging: Compare working in retail to the movie Groundhog Day. Every day can be the same day over and over if we allow it to be. That’s why good leaders challenge their employees to try new things and to strive to improve something they were not so good at the day before.

Constant and consistent development: Motivated people want to learn; many of them want career opportunities. This is one of the most important parts of a leader’s job but, unfortunately, it doesn’t happen nearly enough in retail. A development plan doesn’t have to be complicated but it does need to be constant and consistent.

Recognise effort and performance: Never underestimate the importance of specific recognition. People want to contribute to a store’s success and they especially appreciate it when their effort is called out. Recognition makes an even bigger impact when it’s put in writing.

Create a strong sense of team: Good teams bring out the best in each other, provide mutual support and bring more purpose to each person’s work. A group of people isn’t a team; it’s a group of people committed to a common cause who are enabling each other’s success.

Opportunities to earn more: Short-term contests, games and incentives are great ways to inspire motivated people. It’s as important to focus on and reward the right behaviours as it is to achieve the desired results.

Empower and simplify: You can tell an employee how special he is or how much you appreciate her but they’re not really feeling the love and respect if they have to get a manager every time they wish to complete a simple activity like a small refund. To show employees you trust them, give them ownership over more important tasks. Make it easier for them to do their jobs.

Defined standards and expectations: One of the fastest ways to de-motivate a motivated employee is to fail to hold everyone accountable for the expected standards and expectations. Most people will rise to what’s expected of them but they’ll also lower themselves to the level of accountability set for others.

Voice: Motivated employees want to contribute and be a part of the future. They have good ideas and would like to share them. They feel inspired when they can bring ideas up not only with their manager but also with their manager’s manager or even with the owners. Give employees a voice.

Remove the unmotivated: An unmotivated person drags the entire team down. Motivated employees resent when management accepts or even enables poor performance. Moving underperformers up or out will inspire the motivated employees who remain in the job.

Doug Fleener

Contributor • Sixth Star Consulting

Doug Fleener is the author of a new book titled The Day Makes The Year (Makes The Life). Learn more:

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