As leaders, few challenges rival trying to motivate a disengaged or unmotivated employee. In fact, it’s my belief and experience that you can only create the conditions for people to feel motivated – you cannot control their internal drivers. This is, however, a moment for your leadership influence to shine and it’s vitally important when you do have demotivated people on your team to identify it and act quickly, because the apathy of one individual is capable of dragging on team morale and productivity. 

The good news for leaders is that research reveals recognition and inclusion can reignite motivation.

A recent study found US worker engagement dropped to its lowest levels since mid-2022 amid economic uncertainty. Yet simple recognition resulted in a 9% productivity jump and 22% less absenteeism. The takeaway? Even small sparks of positivity make an impact during trying times. 

In my book, What’s Your Catalyst: The Power of Managed Change, I write about motivation in the context of knowing ourselves, and understanding the ‘why’ that gets us out of bed each day. Motivation is intrinsically linked to purpose and passion, but it also brings into play planning because, as I say in my book, motivation brings momentum: “That which motivates us is the thing that’s going to push us forward.”

When your team or individuals start to stagnate, motivation and morale are often the first casualties. To maintain momentum, leaders must tune in to what their teams are thinking and feeling. 

Here are some tangible ways for leaders to create the conditions for motivated individuals and teams:

Connect work to purpose. Remind unmotivated employees how their efforts contribute to meaningful goals that align with the organization’s vision. Help them see the wider impact of even routine tasks.

Spotlight progress. Recognize an unengaged employee’s incremental wins publicly in team meetings. Praise effort and tenacity, not just perfect outcomes. 

Offer learning opportunities. Suggest skills training or cross-functional projects to help a stagnant employee gain new capabilities and revitalized purpose. Mentoring – whether as a mentee or mentor – can be a powerful motivator. 

Conduct stay interviews. Have periodic, casual chats to ask what motivates each person and their goals. Listen for clues as to what sparks the passion in your people.

Check emotional health. Explore if outside stressors like caregiving demands or finances contribute to their disengagement. Offer resources to help if appropriate. 

Pair with engaged peers. Have unmotivated employees team with energized colleagues on projects. Enthusiasm can be catching.

Ask their advice. People feel empowered when their input is sought. Have them share their perspective on improving processes or team culture.

Communicate context. Provide clear reasons behind organizational changes so people understand the “why” during transitions.

Look in the mirror. Reflect on your own leadership. Are you modeling the positivity, integrity and vision you want emulated?

While reigniting a “dimmed spark” takes patience and compassion, the payoff of increased morale and contribution makes it well worth the effort. By recognizing progress, deepening connections, and restoring a sense of purpose, leaders can light a spark under even their most discouraged people.