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Motivating Employees – Manage Your So-So Employees Up or Out

Motivating employees can be tough. Aren’t you tired of hearing managers say they have no control and there is nothing they can do about:

  • Long time employees who are so-so performers, are at the top of their pay grade and aren’t going anywhere
  • Employees who are three to five years from retirement and have no incentive to improve their performance
  • Employees who are ‘protected’ by a senior person and are ineffective but untouchable
  • And lastly, but most annoying, that HR won’t let managers do anything about employees who are not producing results.

None of these things are true. Managers at any level and with any amount of formal authority can incent a higher level of performance without raising salaries, promoting or rotating employees to a new job. It’s called management. And it isn’t fun, but it does work.

Employees will hit whatever bar managers establish. If the bar is at 80%, employees will hit 80% or below. If the bar is at 50%, employees will hit 50% or below. Exceptional employees will achieve results higher than whatever bar managers set. Managers don’t need to push their best employees to set high expectations and achieve outstanding results. Driven employees excel on his/her own. But it’s not your best employees we are talking about here.

We’re talking about the employees who are coasting, doing their minimal best, clocking in and clocking out, biding time, hoping not be found out. Many people think this kind of performance is limited to the public sector and that corporations are exempt from unmotivated employees. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I hear the same complaints from my clients in corporations, not-for-profits and government agencies. No organization is exempt.

As sexy as it doesn’t sound, managers need to get back to the basics.

The formula for motivating employees:

1)     Set clear expectations with employees at the beginning of the year – a.k.a. now!

Write clear, specific and challenging goals either with or for employees. Seasoned employees should write their own goals. Managers should review and edit those goals, if necessary. Managers should write goals with or for resisters.

2)     Managers should meet with employees regularly to discuss progress or lack thereof, and give feedback.

Now, for the part no manager wants to do.

There is no employee on earth who enjoys being told s/he is not doing a good job. People have a need to be seen as good, if not perfect. When anyone calls our competence into question – in the form of feedback – we get upset. Being defensive is an inevitable part of being human.

The unsexy, tedious but effective way for managers to motivate even the most blasé employees is to give feedback about unacceptable behavior every time s/he sees it. Every time. If Lauren is late, give Lauren feedback about being late –every time she is late. If Brian is heard complaining about new policies and initiatives, give him feedback about it –every time you hear it. If Amber is late in turning in reports, give her feedback about it –every time a report is late.

No one likes to be told s/he isn’t doing a good job. If managers address behavior often enough, employees will change their behavior or leave. Both achieve the desired result.

Your best employees are watching how you manage your weaker employees. Top performers are annoyed that they are working hard while others are allowed to coast. Moving your so-so performers up or out raises your best employees’ morale and commitment to the company, and raises everyone’s performance.



Shari Harley is the founder and President of Candid Culture, a Denver-based training firm that is bringing candor back to the workplace, making it easier to give feedback at work. Shari is the author of the business communication book How to Say Anything to Anyone: A Guide to Building Business Relationships that Really Work. She is a keynote speaker at conferences and does training throughout the U.S. Learn more about Shari Harley and Candid Culture’s training programs at

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