Leadership’s role in inspiring excellence

5 ways to motivate the unmotivated, and to help those floundering to flourish


Every organization has one – or, if they’re lucky, several: the high-performance employee who consistently operates at full capacity. They live breathe, eat and sleep the organization. These loyalists seek extra assignments while taking specialized classes and, as a result, become department experts. We can count on them for anything. We rarely have to say anything to them because they just get it done. Let’s call them overachievers.

Conversely, every organization has the employee – or, if they’re unlucky, several – who put in the bare minimum. They come to work and simply take up space. They have little desire to better themselves or contribute to the organization. They armchair quarterback the high performers, as well as the organization’s goals and mission. Let’s call them the underachievers.

Occasionally, the underachiever will come out from hiding and surprise everyone by doing something out of the ordinary. They spike in performance by doing a project or task that sparked their personal interest.

As a supervisor, it’s important to understand the passion, drive and motivation of your subordinates.
As a supervisor, it’s important to understand the passion, drive and motivation of your subordinates. (Photo/Crafton Hills College)

When this happens, it surprises and shocks both management and members within the organization. In an effort to encourage more of such behavior, their actions are celebrated. Some may end up with the employee-of-the-month award or some other accolade.

Unfortunately, this leaves the overachiever feel like they just ran over a spike strip. It takes the wind out of their sails to see credit given for what should otherwise be routine. The overachiever is thereby left feeling a sense of betrayal by management. “Hey, I do what they did all the time,” she thinks. Meanwhile, the underachiever prances around with a renewed sense of entitlement. Bottom line: Managers think they’re rewarding good behavior. Perhaps, in the short term, they are. But they are also unwittingly providing cover for longer-term dysfunction.

The supervisor’s role

As a supervisor, it’s important to understand the passion, drive and motivation of your subordinates. It’s also important to remember that one size doesn’t fill all with five active generations in today’s workforce.

I recently read an article by Katie Williamson on “motivating the unmotivated.” Is it possible to instill work ethic in the unmotivated? Is it a question of engagement or is it intrinsic? Williamson recommends the following:

  • Talk it out. Hear them out. There are myriad sources of motivation, as well as discontent. Don’t presume; listen.
  • Set goals. You need to clarify expectations – for your employee as well as yourself and your organization. Put these down in writing and let them own them.
  • Let them make harmless mistakes. Fear inhibits action. The idea is to get the work done. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it does need to happen. Improvement happens with experience.
  • Keep the conversation going. Williamson says this shouldn’t be an annual discussion but rather an ongoing conversation. I agree wholeheartedly.

Empower greatness

I’ll be blunt. There are some folks who just aren’t cut out for the job, whatever that job may be, and they need to go. But, in my experience, this is generally very rare – especially in public safety. People want to be first responders for more than just a paycheck. Then there are those who are floundering – because of personal issues or a mismatch of expectations or some combination thereof. The goal of the boss should be to get those floundering to flourish. In my experience, a good way to do that is to recognize excellence and never settle for mediocrity. Empower your people to be great!

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2021 Fire Chief. All rights reserved.