Skip to content

When MVPs become unmotivated employees: What’s the fix?


Inspiring unmotivated employees can be a challenge for managers. It can be an even bigger task – and more urgent – when you notice otherwise great performers are pulling back.

If an employee your organization relies on to consistently deliver results, improve processes, delight customers or motivate others is suddenly flagging, it’s time to act.

Intervening and working on a solution together can help your unmotivated employee get back on track and protect your organization’s innovation and productivity.

How can you tell if a good performer is now an unmotivated employee?

There are several clues that a key performer has lost their energy to deliver great work. Some signs are more subtle than others.

  1. Delivering less. When an employee who usually puts in 110% effort is no longer seeking ways to exceed expectations, is counting down time until the day is over or leaving projects unfinished, it’s often a sign of fatigue.
  2. Contributing less. If your idea person is less energetic, no longer engaging enthusiastically in group discussions, sharing suggestions or offering feedback, or asking for challenge, something may be off.
  3. Pushing back more. An employee who’s losing motivation may display a negative attitude, be less transparent, resist when they’re asking to do something or provide feedback that’s not descriptive enough to be useful.
  4. Leaving more. If you notice that turnover has increased among your top performers, then your organization may have a larger problem with employee fulfillment and engagement.
  5. General happiness. Do you see changes in their behavior or general attitude when you encounter this person? This can be much harder to detect in a virtual environment.

Any of these signs can indicate an employee who feels frustrated, bored, unfulfilled or unappreciated in their current role.

It’s also possible that your employee is less motivated because of stressors in their personal life. For example, they may be struggling to balance remote work with extra family responsibilities in a way that’s taking a toll on their morale.

Before you can work on a solution, you need to understand the cause.

Finding the cause of employee dissatisfaction

The best way to find out what’s going on is to ask. Ideally, you’ll be able to set aside some neutral time, like a cup of coffee or a virtual lunch, to have a casual conversation to discover a deeper issue and discuss how things are going.

Open-ended statements can help you understand the situation without making the unmotivated employee feel like you’re putting them on the spot. For example, you might say, “I noticed recently that you used to always contribute ideas in meetings, and lately you’re not doing that anymore, what’s going on?

Employees are more likely to share openly with their managers what’s going on if they have a genuine and trusting relationship already established.

Then, be prepared to listen to what they have to say, so you can develop a plan to help.

Helping employees rekindle their motivation

You may find that your key employee is frustrated with a work situation that has a simple fix.

1. Address burnout. For example, maybe they feel burnt out because they’re carrying most of the weight of a group project while the other team members aren’t being held accountable. That’s something a manager can address so your top performers aren’t carrying more burden on collaborative work or frustrated with lack of action.

2. Offer opportunities for growth. Sometimes an employee feels they’ve outgrown their role and want to take on more responsibility. In that case, it may be time to talk about  future opportunities. While a promotion isn’t always the best option for motivating a fatigued employee, it may be a proactive measure to avoid dissatisfaction in the first place or can be considered as a potential goal.

It’s also not always possible to promote someone when they’re ready to move up. Budget constraints, restructuring and other issues may mean that a role change isn’t on the horizon.

3. Value flexibility and work-life balance. Another issue is that not everybody wants to be promoted. An employee who’s trying hard to find work-life balance may not want more responsibility at work, or a promotion may mean supervising others, which may not be a motivator for some.

4. Be understanding and make it personal. The best way to determine alternative options is to get to know your people to understand what motivates them. Based on their feedback, you might consider offering:

  • Bonuses and incentives that encourage your employees to hit attainable benchmarks
  • Flexible work hours and remote-work options that help employees with work-life integration
  • Training and development programs to help employees build valuable skills
  • Recognition for good work and valuable feedback

5. Give them more autonomy. There’s another approach that can help rekindle motivation even if you can’t offer a promotion or perks, and that’s a challenge. If the employee is interested, giving them the freedom and independence to take a problem and run with it can refresh their wellspring of innovation.

6. Start a new project. A good project to re-motivate a valuable employee could require them to study something new they’d like to learn about within your organization, or giving them a project that stretches their talents in an area of interest. Maybe it will help them identify areas for improvement. It might also give them higher visibility across the organization.

When you’ve found a challenge that can benefit your unmotivated employee and your organization:

  • Be clear about the scope of the problem.
  • Let them know it’s OK to make mistakes as they work on it.
  • Help them set milestones for the project.
  • Check in as needed. See if they need anything along the way, and stay available as a resource while they work on the problem.  

Proactive plans to avoid employee dissatisfaction

Noticing the signs of frustration, identifying the cause and coming up with a plan are all important when a key performer seems to be losing steam. Ideally, though, you can also prevent or reduce employee unhappiness by following a few best practices.

  1. Know what motivates your top employees. Find out as soon as you can what makes them happy, drives them to perform and why they’re with your organization.
  2. Create a plan to support each key employee’s career goals. Set short- and long-term milestones and check in frequently to make sure they’re on track.
  3. Inspire, empower them and provide the tools they need to help them follow their plan.
  4. Help them make connections or identify mentors within your organization.
  5. Remove roadblocks to their development and career paths.

Your organization can adopt or expand policies that help attract and keep top talent, like flexible work hours, remote work options and an education assistance program or in-house learning programs for your employees.

Every company needs the input and energy of people who like their work and care about making things work better. When you support your top performers and find ways to maintain their motivation, you can help your whole organization thrive.

Want more ideas on re-inspiring your unmotivated employees? Download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.