How to motivate an employee that doesn't want to grow

5 min read  |   28 November, 2016   By Aimée Brougham-Chandler

Happy lady and man looking at paperwork

So you have an employee that just isn’t developing. Despite your best efforts, they’re being difficult or obstructive, or just aren’t performing as they should. You’ve identified the areas that require improvement, but they still seem unable or unwilling to change and improve. 

You know that they can become more motivated in their role and do a better job - and ultimately move forward in their career - if they will address those areas for growth. But they just seem to be so resistant to change.

Some may think, “To hell with them”. But, it’s your job and your responsibility to develop and increase employee motivation in your company. When you nurture your staff, they not only become a better asset for your company, but they also have a better relationship with you as their boss. So ensuring your employees develop and grow is good for employee retention and is good for your business too.

So, what do you do? Here are five ways you can improve your people management and encourage employee engagement and development. 


Firstly, you need to find out why they are being resistant to change. If you’re faced with excuses for not achieving, then don’t just accept or punish the excuses, probe further to find out if the excuses hold any merit. Or, if you’re coming up against a seeming lack of motivation and drive, then ask for feedback and listen carefully. Ask perhaps how you could have achieved something better or how you could work with the staff member better. Or even ask what the company could do to improve their work life. Listen to them and take the time to understand how they (and perhaps you) can use the feedback to improve. There may be a simple issue that you can solve that is the root cause of their dissatisfaction or demotivation. 

Understand them better

We each have a unique set of factors and values that drives and motivates us and determines what priorities we set for ourselves. Some of these things are very personal and can only be determined by knowing someone very well. But what makes us tick at a more general level can often be dependent on our personalities. Using typing methods and personality tests such as Myers-Briggs or DiSC can help to better understand an employee. It can help you to grasp what motivates them, giving you strategies for the language to use when speaking to them and helping you recognise which goals and methods they will best respond to. 


You really can’t make someone do something they don’t want to. But you can create the circumstances under which they will feel motivated to change. You can engender the right atmosphere to give them an innate motivation and natural commitment to improve and grow. This might be by fostering stronger teamwork and passion in the company as a whole. Or perhaps you can better demonstrate your own passion and vision for the company. This encouragement from the top will generate a greater team spirit and an improved appreciation of the individual and their role within the company. The result of this will be that your recalcitrant staff member is swept along in all the positivity and can’t help but join in. 

One method of motivation, proposed in the Harvard Business Review, turns the tables on the employee. Instead of you trying to motivate them to do what you want them to do, you extract the solutions from them. It’s a bit like getting people to think they came up with an idea, when really you did.

This method’s first stage is to fully research and understand the employee and their personal drivers. In doing so, you comprehend how their motivations might be impacting your own responses to them.

If this first step doesn’t elicit a solution, then the next stage is to consider revising the goal, you can use a performance management software to keep track of this. The view taken is that the way you thought of developing the employee may not be the right one. If your research has uncovered other issues or other qualities in your staff member, then maybe you can bring these together to develop an aspect of their character that could be beneficial to the company and to them. For example, you may find out that the employee you thought needed a time-management course because their work was often late is in fact spending too much time chatting to co-workers. Rather than insist on a time-management course, this employee might be better off running the company’s social events. They know all the staff and are outgoing and sociable. Putting them in charge of arranging the Christmas party will give them new, event management skills. You might not have achieved what you originally wanted, but the employee will likely be more motivated by this activity and may perform better in their role in general.

Then, if this hasn’t worked, you should meet up and discuss the situation. You should each air any differences and aim to explore areas that you can agree on. 


You can give an employee added drive by rewarding the behaviour that you want. You should disclose the incentive upfront and tailor it to the individual and their needs. If there is significant development required, incentive pay, a pay increase or promotion might be appropriate. Or the recognition needed may be as simple as presenting a certificate for achievement or giving some verbal praise in front of peers at a staff meeting. We all perform better when our efforts are acknowledged, and sometimes just this simple act can turn around an inflexible staff member. 

Use the stick rather than the carrot

If your employee isn’t responding to the carrot (incentivisation), it may be time for the stick. This would come by way of more formal or disciplinary methods. If the expectations have been clearly identified and communicated, but they still are not being met, then the consequences must be made clear. It may take you setting out unequivocal or more precise objectives and getting your employee to recognise more formally that their continued behaviour will result in a negative outcome.

If you have previously failed to get a staff member to address their shortcomings, then one or more of these methods will help you to get your staff to improve, grow and move forward. And the bonus will be that your business will improve at the same time.


Author: Aimée Brougham-Chandler

An IDM-certified Digital Copywriter (2023) & English Language & Literature graduate (BA Hons), Aimée is Breathe's Content Assistant. With 3 years' content marketing experience, Aimée has a passion for writing - and providing SME HR teams with solutions to their problems. She enjoys delving into & demystifying all things HR: from employee performance to health and wellbeing, leave to company culture & much more.

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