Coach Brett Penfil

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Coaching Insider: How to Handle a Motivation Problem

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Coaching Insider: How to Handle a Motivation Problem

In this series, we present BetterUp coaches with realistic scenarios that we commonly encounter (and struggle with) in the workplace. They walk us through how they’d coach a client through the challenge and identify possible solutions. Got an issue you’d like one of our coaches to tackle in a Coaching Insider feature? Email


Wasim is Ben’s manager. During their recent one-on-one, Wasim learned that Ben, a top performer, has been feeling uninspired and demotivated. Ben explained he feels he’s no longer learning and growing in his role. When Wasim probed to see if Ben was interested in transitioning from an individual contributor to a people manager, Ben said he wasn’t interested in managing direct reports. Wasim is worried about losing Ben, but isn’t sure how to keep him engaged when Ben isn’t interested in the traditional career path. How should he handle this motivation problem?

Wasim is a smart manager; he knows the value of people and the importance of retaining top talent. His efforts to increase Ben’s satisfaction and motivation at work are right on the money. Research shows that employee engagement increases an organization’s productivity and overall success. It’s also beneficial for the individual employee. For example, engaged employees are healthier than their disengaged colleagues.

Clearly, employee engagement is good for both employees and companies. But how do managers retain top talent, especially individual contributors? This is a challenge that most managers face at some point.

Employee engagement requires proactive attention and action.Click To Tweet

Employee engagement requires proactive attention and action. Wasim is fortunate to know that Ben is feeling uninspired because this knowledge enables him to address the situation before it’s too late. The fact that Wasim and Ben discussed Ben’s lack of motivation indicates they have a transparent and trusting relationship—a strength Wasim can build on as he approaches the issue at hand.

Wasim is concerned that Ben is a flight risk and has a good relationship with Ben. What does Wasim need to do now? As his coach, I would focus on three areas: coaching, using questions to understand the problem, and identifying possible solutions together.

Coaching Ben

People management is not one role; it’s a blend of multiple elements.

People management is not one role; it’s a blend of multiple elements. In some situations, managers need to direct. In others, they need to coach or support. In others still, they need to delegate. The table below is loosely based on Situational Leadership, an incredibly useful management and leadership tool. Though the table makes it look like these four managerial roles are distinct, they overlap in practice. Successful managers are moving in and out of these roles constantly based on the needs of individual employees.

Manager Role Goal of Role When to Use How to Use
Direct Teach teammate something new Teammate is not experienced in a certain skill or area Provide clear framework, steps, and knowledge
Coach Help teammate explore and develop a new understanding or competency Teammate is limited in his/her understanding of an issue or is in need of ongoing development Ask exploratory questions and make observations that help teammate inquire, understand, and grow
Support Provide encouragement and “light” help as necessary Teammate is engaging in a new area of work Allow space for teammate to engage in work, but offer assistance as needed
Delegate Empower teammate to own the work, project, etc. Teammate is able to work independently Trust your teammate, give them the resources they need, and let them shine

If Wasim directs Ben in the current situation, he runs the risk of giving Ben a new assignment that Ben doesn’t want, ultimately making Ben even less engaged. Wasim was wise not to assume Ben wanted to move into people management. Similarly, if Wasim supports or delegates this problem to Ben, he leaves Ben to figure out the issue on his own. This can be frustrating and demotivating for Ben.

Wasim’s role in this situation is to coach Ben, because neither Wasim nor Ben completely understand the root cause of Ben’s unhappiness. As his manager, Wasim’s job is to help Ben through this impasse. Ben is unfulfilled, but we don’t know the full story of his experience. If Wasim takes on the role of a coach, he can help Ben better understand his frustrations and ultimately help him find a solution. In the coaching role, Ben is relieved of the responsibility of solving the problem on his own. His job is to facilitate a meaningful conversation that helps both of them jointly understand and solve the issue.

A few coaching questions I would ask Wasim at this point are:

  • How do you see your role in relation to this issue?
  • How might seeing yourself in a coaching role as opposed to a directing role impact how you address this issue with Ben?
  • What are ways to better understand the issue?

Use questions to understand the problem

The purpose of these questions is to open up the issue so both manager and teammate can better understand it and address it together.

Asking open-ended questions is a key coaching tool that will help Ben peel away the layers surrounding his issue. The purpose of these questions is to open up the issue so both manager and teammate can better understand it and address it together.

To dig deeper, I would recommend asking the following open-ended questions:

  • What is contributing to Ben’s lack of inspiration?
  • What motivates Ben?
  • What is at the root of his current situation?

When developing coaching questions, remember to keep them:

  • Simple (not multi-part)
  • Open-ended (can’t be answered with yes/no)
  • Exploratory (will help the responder better understand something)
  • Lacking an agenda (not an opinion or statement formatted into a question; allow yourself and the responder to be surprised by the answer)
Asking questions is a two-part process.Click To Tweet

Asking questions is actually a two-part process: 1) ask yourself what you already know or think, and 2) engage your teammate in the discovery and solution process. Conducting your own thought process first will help you facilitate the exploration with teammates.

A few coaching questions I would ask Wasim at this point are:

  • What do you understand so far about Ben’s pain points?
  • What do you know about what interests and motivates Ben?
  • What have you noticed about Ben’s level of engagement over time?
  • What factors may have contributed to his lack of engagement?
  • What exploratory questions might you ask Ben?

Collaboratively identify possible solutions

Once Wasim and Ben have a comprehensive understanding of the problem, they can brainstorm potential solutions that could resolve the particular pain points Ben is experiencing. Here are some possibilities:

  • If Ben is motivated by growing in his technical area and feels limited by his current work: Wasim could encourage Ben and give him resources to develop a new project that would give him an opportunity to learn.
  • If Ben wants more visibility for his work: Wasim could develop a plan for Ben to present his work to internal or external leaders or lead a high-visibility project.
  • If Ben wants to have greater impact: Wasim could identify opportunities for Ben to lead more strategic, company-wide projects. He could also organize a series of internal rotations within the organization, enabling Ben to learn more and increasing his ability to make an impact cross-functionally.
  • If Ben is motivated by helping others: Wasim could work with him to become a mentor to others in the department.

Ben might actually be interested in people management, but he worries he won’t succeed. If this turns out to be the case, Wasim could explore Ben’s disinterest more with questions such as:

  • What, if anything, would you enjoy about people management?
  • Do you have any worries about people management?
  • If you had support and training, would you want to take on one direct report?

It’s also always a good idea to check in on the logistics of work (e.g., office set-up, work hours) to ensure those are aligned with your teammate’s preferences as much as possible.

A good manager makes every effort to retain top talent, but doesn’t limit a person’s opportunities by holding them too tight.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of solutions, but an idea of how better understanding the root of the problem can lead to possible solutions. Of course, if Wasim spends the time to turn over every rock and nothing seems to be help, he should ask Ben if he’s feeling that his next career and life step is beyond the walls of this organization. A good manager makes every effort to retain top talent, but doesn’t limit a person’s opportunities by holding them too tight.

Wrap up and reflect

In real estate the saying is “location, location, location.” In management and leadership, it’s “follow-up, follow-up, follow-up.”

Once Wasim and Ben have determined the root of the issue and decided on a solution (which may take several conversations), Wasim will need to take on the role of both coaching and supporting. He needs to provide regular follow-up and follow-through, including securing resources and opportunities as determined in the solution. Doing so will show Ben Wasim’s commitment to Ben’s satisfaction. Wasim should also continue to meet regularly with Ben to discuss how the new plan is going, what Ben is enjoying, what he needs, and what he is learning. This information can be used to maintain Ben’s inspiration at work.

What are the key takeaways from this scenario?

  • Keeping an eye out for top performers is a smart leadership guideline.
  • Managers (and leaders) need to be able to flex their style based on the person and the situation.
  • In real estate the saying is “location, location, location.” In management and leadership, it’s “follow-up, follow-up, follow-up.” Once Wasim and Ben have invested in this discovery and solution process, it would be a waste to have it drop to the ground.

Original art by Vaclav Bicha.

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