If I'm a manager and I felt that one on my team who's motivated and has great performance seems to have lost his motivation should I ask him his what motivates him or if I am an employee who had lost my motivation because of the management's decisions should I be direct about it?

  • What is the context of this "what motivates you" question? Is it in an interview, performance review, small talk, etc?
    – Brandin
    Oct 28 '15 at 12:16
  • 1
    also by "is it smart" do you mean "will I learn what I want" or "will I look stupid" or something else entirely? Oct 28 '15 at 12:21
  • Based on the edit it sounds like "motivation" is not the right way to describe this. In this situation it sounds like you (or the employee) is unhappy with recent decisions made by management and it may be impacting your (or his/her) work performance. The question should be whether or how to discuss this, who initiates the conversation, etc.
    – Brandin
    Oct 28 '15 at 12:49

Asking employees (or employees telling managers) what motivates them is tricky.

Why it's a good idea:

  1. There is a measurable reduction in productivity and nobody knows why, but a drop in motivation is evident and reasons are unclear. In such cases, if the management is in fact bent on improving things, it might make sense to have a conversation (or do a survey, on organizational scale) to find out what, on average, is going on and what could be done about it.
  2. It might be a good idea for an employee to tell the manager what motivates them IF (a) the employee can offer a solution and solve the problem on their own, without the manager having to do much of anything -- managers like problems that employees solve on their own; (b) the employees feels reasonably confident, and has precedent, that the problem is something the manager could easily address without much of an impact on anything else (e.g. allowing the employee to come in and leave a half hour early to avoid rush hour traffic, if this does not mess up a standing meeting schedule).

Why it's not a good idea:

  1. Some psychological theories have shows that, for the most part, people are motivated by much the same things, or a combination of them. For example, the Self-Determination Theory talks about 3 components: competence, relatedness, and autonomy. When one is missing, motivation suffers. When all three are present to some degree (in addition to the paycheck), motivation is reasonably strong and sustainable. A manager can simply assume this is the case for every employee and attempt to provide for these components in the workplace.

  2. For many jobs, the paycheck is the single greatest motivator. Everybody implicitly recognizes this, and the assumption is, will continue working regardless of anything else as long as the paycheck provides sufficient motivation to stay. Then why ask.

  3. A manager who asks what motivates employees opens 'a can of worms' that can backfire: everyone will start coming up with fantastical ideas about their ideal workplace, and how what they current have is not that, and the meeting will inevitably devolve into a complaint competition. Since workplace patterns and culture do not change easily, this kind of reflection will only make everyone realize how many things are lacking in their workplace and become demotivated. Not what the manager had in mind!

We often perceive motivation as something out there in our environment, which is either present or lacking. But we are somehow constant and unchangeable. Therefore to increase motivation, the environment has to be changed -- preferably adapted to our preferences. The problem is, people's preferences differ, and you can't make everyone happy. This realization can be a powerful deterrent for the management to open the "can of worms" of individual motivation. (What if the worms end up crawling in the all the different directions and the situation gets out of control?! Managers don't like to lose control.)

If you are an employee, why do you think that the manager cares about what motivates you? At the end of the day the manager cares about one thing: getting a good performance evaluation. The way to do that is to get projects done on time, within budget, with good quality. If one employee is doing just fine but another one next to them is lacking in motivation, what's the problem here -- the environment, or the employee having a motivation problem? Since the first employee is doing OK, it must be the latter. So, talking about what motivates you can backfire by appearing that you yourself are the problem, rather than something in the external environment or others' interaction with you.

Look at those around you. Find the most motivated person on your team, or your department, or your company. Are their circumstances that radically different from yours? If not, what personal qualities, beliefs, or attitudes might account for this difference? Could it have to do less with objective differences in the workplace environment, and more with the perception of the same (for the most part) environment? Something to consider. Hope this helps, good luck!

  • Point well taken and the answer is certainly "No," it's not that clear-cut. Some managers who are more vested in the business and far-sighted also care about adding long-term value to the company, and nurturing the human capital is part of that equation. But the OP's question has few details about the manager in this particular situation, so I opted for a more hardcore prescription based on this working assumption.
    – A.S
    Oct 28 '15 at 15:33

Motivation is irrelevant. You are paid to do your job, so you are obligated to do it or leave. What is relevant is work performance.

If a manager notices that work performance is off, he has an obligation to the company to do his job and talk to the employee about that performance and why it is falling off. This should include steps to deal with the performance issue but should not be centered on motivation.

Often when a good employees work falls off then it is often unrelated to work at all, but is due to a personal problem such as a sick child a parent who needs care, a divorce, a cancer diagnosis, etc. The person doesn't need to tell you what is wrong, but does need to understand that poor performance is not acceptable. If they choose to tell you that they need an accommodation, then you need to try to work with the employee to get them back on track.

If he brings up a work problem that is causing the issue, it could be process (something is actively preventing him from getting the job done like rights to a particular file share or server). In this case you try to remove the block and counsel him that he should have come to you before a performance loss was noticeable.

If it is a decision that he disagrees with, then you can consider that in terms of what the decision was but of course, as a manger, the single worst thing you can do is change your mind every time someone is upset about it. Because someone is upset about every decision. If you change to accommodate what Sam wants, then you have made Joe unhappy because he liked the previous policy. If you then change to accommodate what Joe wants, then Mary is unhappy and now Sam is unhappy again.

It is not a manager's job to make sure that everyone is happy all the time. It is a manager's job to make sure the work gets accomplished. Even when everyone who works for you hates the policy, there are times when it is still the right decision for the business. You need, in these cases, to make sure the team understands that they have been heard but the decision stands and you expect that they will continue to do the jobs they are being paid for. If anyone can't do that after being warned that the performance is lacking, then I have no problem with the idea of letting them go. These people are a cancer in your organization and should be replaced by people with more maturity. Now it is true, it helps people deal with unpleasant but not going to change decisions, if, as a general rule, you do listen to concerns and act on them where possible.

On the employee side, you need to talk to your manager immediately if you have an outside problem affecting your performance. Many things can be accommodated but the manager doesn't know there is a problem unless you tell him. The same thing with things that are blocking you from doing your job. Tell the manager as son as possible so action to clear the block can happen.

If the employee is upset about some work decision. it can be discussed. But honestly if you start showing bad performance because of management decisions that are not likely to change, then you have lost all credibility with the manager and that is the action least likely to get a policy changed.

You have to be an adult and accept that the workplace is not going to do everything the way you would prefer and that the time to offer alternatives is long before a decision is made. So the manager may listen to the problem, but honestly, it is not going to help him choose to go the way you want if your performance has fallen off.

In your career, there will be thousands of times when decisions you don't like happen. It will happen in 100% of all workplaces. So you need to learn to separate your feelings about a particular decision from your work performance.


should I ask him his what motivates him

No. Motivation is a very complex subject, and isn't a matter of one or two items. "Lots of things" is the only real answer to such a question.

Asking this question could put the individual on the spot to come up with a "motivational item", that isn't really what you are looking for. Instead, direct your discussion to performance. This is what matters most.

Something like "I have noticed that your performance lately hasn't been up to your usual standards. Is something going on that we should discuss?" could be more effective. That allows the employee to talk about all sorts of things that could be affecting performance. It may be a motivational issue. Or it may be something else getting in the way.

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