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How to Motivate Lazy, Disengaged and Disconnected Team Members

disengagedEver wonder if your team’s heart is in it?

Well, it’s probably a good idea to figure out the answer to that question.

According to Gallup, 70% of US employees are disengaged at work, meaning they don’t show up to your organization bringing their best.

For 18% of employees, it’s even worse. Almost one in five employees, in Gallup’s words, are:

emotionally disconnected from their companies and may actually be working against their employers’ interests; they are less productive, are more likely to steal from their companies, negatively influence their coworkers, miss workdays, and drive customers away.

It’s easy to think that most people are lazy, don’t care and nothing can be done to engage them more deeply.

Not so fast.

While it’s true that the passion of the team will never exceed the passion of the leader, it’s also true that a passionate leader can have a passionless team. The challenge is to get your passion for the mission to transfer to the team.

While it's true that the passion of the team will never exceed the passion of the leader, it's also true that a passionate leader can have a passionless team. Click To Tweet

Four Bad Strategies

So how do you motivate people? Well, here are four bad strategies:

Hype everyone up

Yell a lot, showing everyone how passionate you are

Get angry (“those thankless, lazy…”)

Fire everybody and start over

I tried all those approaches over the years (except for firing everyone and starting over).

Any lift you get from hype, passion or anger at people’s indifference only lasts for minutes, if it helps at all.

Anger (which is actually quite common among senior leaders) usually just sets you back further. It damages everyone involved, not to mention your cause.

A leader’s anger never motivates anyone except the leader, and then only for ten minutes.

So what will get your team to lean in and engage the mission?

I’ve found that how you handle your one-on-one meetings with your direct reports makes a huge difference.

I’ve been fortunate to see the teams I’ve led engage deeply in the mission, often going far above and beyond what’s expected, throwing their heart enthusiastically into what the mission.

So how do you get people to lean in?

A leader's anger never motivates anyone except the leader, and then only for ten minutes. Click To Tweet

Try This At Work

The key for me as a leader has been a simple shift.  I ask my team how they’re doing before I ask them what they’re doing. (Hat tip to my friend Jeff Henderson for that idea).

As a result of that shift, I saw my team lean in like I’d never seen.

I’ve adopted that approach into a set of 5 simple but powerful questions you can ask your team. Use them when you meet with them one on one.

Here are the 5 questions great managers ask:

If you want to motivate your team, ask them HOW they're doing before you ask them WHAT they're doing. Click To Tweet

Question 1. How are you doing?

How are you is one of the most basic questions we humans ask each other, but it’s so often missed at work. Particularly in manager/employee conversations.

The purpose behind this question is to see how the employee or team member is really doing, personally. And yes, that’s a great starting point to a one on one meeting. It shows you care about them, and that’s a major factor in employee engagement.

Once your team sees you’re sincere when you’re asking them (you may have to ask for a while before they know you really care), they’ll usually open up.

Don’t be frightened if at some point a team member breaks down or “dumps” on you. Often people never talk about this kind of thing. Isolation and loneliness are epidemics in our culture, and people have few to no outlets to talk about what’s really going on.

But here’s the principle: when your team knows you care about them, they’ll care more about you and the mission.

When your team knows you care about them, they’ll care more about you and the mission. Click To Tweet

Question 2. Is there anything I can do to help?

No, you’re not their therapist and that’s not your role. Your role is to listen, empathize, show you care and let them know you’re for them.

Surprisingly, 99% of the time, your team member will answer this question with a simple ‘no.’ That’s normal.

Of course, you probably can’t help them with their marriage or with their sleepless infant, and reasonable people realize this.

But what this helps the employee see is that their issues (a tough relationship or marriage, being out socially night after night, not making it to the gym lately) have little to nothing to do with work.

Occasionally, they may suggest things like “just letting me talk about this has already helped” or “if I could take Friday off to sort some things out,” and you can respond as appropriate.

Caring about the person really matters, and often your interest in them can be the impetus for them to take the action they need to sort out their issue.

And—don’t miss this—the organization benefits from that. Why? Because people bring who they are into what they do. Ultimately, your personal well-being impacts your performance at work.

People bring who they are into what they do. Ultimately, your personal well-being impacts your performance at work. Click To Tweet

3. What are you working on right now?

After spending the first few questions on their personal well-being, flip to talking about work.

Often managers can find it hard to track who’s working on what. This question helps you and the team member clarify what their priorities are.

A helpful, normal work-related conversation that unearths the tasks and projects they’re working on.

In addition, if an important project doesn’t get mentioned, you can bring it up and check in on how it’s moving along.

4. What obstacles are you facing?

Sometimes the answer to this question will be none (they just need to keep going), but other times challenges surface.

You may learn that your team member can’t get someone to call them back, or that they’re out of budget, or something as basic as their computer keeps crashing.

Phrasing the question this way separates the person from the problem and gives your team members a chance to succeed. They emerge as the hero, and your job is to help them tackle the challenges ahead of them.

Obviously, if the challenges are something company-wide (a bad culture, bad equipment, or a bottleneck in senior management), you have some work to do.

But at least you now know how your employees feel and whether conditions are working for them or against them.

This is also your best moment in the meeting to coach, encourage and problem-solve with your team member.

5. Is there anything I can to help you accomplish the goals we set?

One of your chief jobs as a leader is to help your team win. This question sets you and them up to do that.

Often the answer will be no. But if their computer keeps crashing or they can’t get the client to call them back, you may be able to help them accomplish that.

One of the best things you can do as a leader is to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of your team’s success.

One of the best things you can do as a leader is to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of your team's success. Click To Tweet


The High Impact Workplace

Wish your team was more engaged at work? Most leaders do.

According to Gallup, 70% of employees are disengaged at work, and the most talented employees are heading off to do their own thing.

Here’s how to change that.

My new online, on-demand course, The High Impact Workplace: How to Attract and Keep High Capacity Leaders In A Changing World will give you the edge you need to win the talent war for the best leaders and keep them engaged.

Smart employers know how to respond to growing requests for more flexible work: flexible hours, the ability to work from home or a coffee shop, and more freedom and autonomy.

In the course, I give you the exact strategies you need to:

  • Attract and keep high capacity leaders who would otherwise start their own businesses.
  • Identify and leverage the currency that motivates young leaders.
  • Navigate flexible work arrangements that result in deeper productivity.
  • Master the 5 questions every great manager asks their team for deeper engagement.
  • Create workplace environments that multiple generations can thrive in.
  • Learn how to keep your company or organization relevant to the most talented leaders.

Here’s what employers are saying about the High Impact Workplace:

“Each time a unit ends, I look over my notes and think “that was exactly what I needed, the rest of the class is just a bonus.” BUT I repeat that EACH UNIT!”

“The course got me to talk with my team about things I wouldn’t have considered talking about.”

“This is exactly what I needed.”

Learn why the future workplace is the flexible workplace, and how to keep your company relevant to the next generation of leaders.

To enroll now or learn more about the High Impact Workplace, click here.

Got Any Questions You Love To Ask?

What helps you deepen employee engagement? Got any questions you ask that help?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

How to Motivate Lazy, Disengaged and Disconnected Team Members


  1. Erin on November 25, 2019 at 10:26 am

    I supervise summer students and these will be great questions when I check in with them. If you have a set period of time how do you show you care but make sure you get to the questions of work? What is a good way to transition from one question to the next. Also I find it’s helpful to add phrases like “Tell me more” or “And what else” or “Is there anything else”. I think having this set of questions will help get to what needs to be talked about as most people doing say what they really want to say until close to the end of the meeting/conversation. Thanks for the tips! Asking good questions is definitely something I’m working on and you are a great example of asking good questions.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 25, 2019 at 9:07 pm

      Great questions!

      I think a lot of it is based on the individual conversation you are having. Sadly, you can’t plan out every detail and if your employee shares something big, you might need to give a bit more time to talk about it.

      One thing that I always try to do is make sure that they know how long I have before I dive into these questions. Then, they will move the conversation along to the important things before time runs out.

  2. Carey Nieuwhof on November 25, 2019 at 9:14 am

    Sam…so glad to hear this! Cheering for you!

  3. Nicole on November 25, 2019 at 7:40 am

    This is so good!! I don’t currently have a team, but I’m saving this in the event that I do someday. Thank you so much for this resource!

    • Sam Thomas on November 25, 2019 at 8:06 am

      Thanks Carey! I have used some of these questions to great result. I haven’t tried some of the others. I’m adding them all to my weekly One on One reminder notes. Your the Best!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on November 25, 2019 at 9:15 am

      Hey Nicole. Thanks! Idea: try a few of the questions on anyone you have influence with…even a friend. See how it goes.

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