The Most Effective Phrases to Motivate an Employee to Do Something You Want Them To Do

Grace has stopped in the middle of road, in the midst of making her decision whether to run ahead or return back towards me. I've found that the way I ask has little bearing on her decision. It's more about the context of the situation that will determine her behavior.

Grace has stopped in order to evaluate her decision: will she run ahead to enjoy more scents or return back towards me out of the cold? At that particular moment, I wanted her to return, but I’ve found that the way I ask has little bearing on her decision. It’s more about the context of the situation that will determine her behavior. That doesn’t mean she always does what she wants to do; she will (mostly) come when I call her. But I give her leeway to enjoy the smells whenever I can, so that when I do call her, she knows it’s not all one-sided. Understanding the give and take is critical from both parties. Managers have to have some give-and-take, and so do employees. Knowing and respecting each other is the key to success.

A manager recently asked me if I could suggest some phrases that would motivate employees to do their work. This supervisor was hoping to find some positive ways to address lingering situations, such as corralling wandering workers away from a neighboring cubicle because of the continual distraction to the other co-workers, ending lengthy water cooler conversations by overly chatty workers, and general unproductive behavior. She wanted to have something in her repertoire other than a cold demand of ‘Hey, enough already, now get back to work!’

I really like the intent of the question. It shows that this supervisor is trying to be creative and compassionate, while at the same time buoy the effectiveness of her team. I wish a simple choice of words would solve the issue.

There are certainly ways to finesse language, such as being non-judgmental, light, fun, and respectful that will go a long way.  But no matter now nice you ask, it’s no guarantee of compliance. Here’s why.

I’m inclined to think this lack of motivation is a deeper issue, especially if the employee has a track record of being unproductive more often than he is productive.

One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned from Grace is this: just because I ask (or even tell) her to do something, it’s not really the critical factor that determines whether she’s going to actually do it or not. It’s not about the words. It’s about the relationship she and I have, which takes into account how much we understand and respect the other one. 

I just heard a story from a friend a few days ago that illustrates this perfectly. She and her family adopted a young dog and things were going great. The little pup is adorable, full of energy, easy-going, happy all the time, eager to please. But he wouldn’t eat food out of his dish. My friend started to hand feed him, but decided that wasn’t a good idea for the long haul and tried to encourage him to eat out of his own dish. Nope. Nothing she said made a difference. The little guy just wouldn’t do it. She decided to change to a different food bowl, and viola, no problem. The shape of the bowl was making it difficult for him to pull the kibble out. Some might say, “When he got hungry enough, he would have eaten.” Sure, sure, that’s probably true. But it’s not a very nice approach to having a relationship, one where you are forcing someone to do something they don’t want to do. If we can explore the rationale behind the behavior, aren’t we all better off by fixing the real problem? 

My recommendation is to start to uncover the real reasons for the unproductive behavior. It might be as simple as the employee is highly social and isn’t getting enough chit-chat time. Learning more about the employee’s natural tendencies and interests is a good start to understanding each other. Find ways — working together — to address the issue and you may never have to say ‘get back to work’ again.

Many situations are more complicated. It’s possible that the person isn’t in the right job based on her skills and interests. But the process is the same, it just might take longer. The more you work to understand the issues, the greater clarity you will find on how to solve it. And both parties find respect for each other along the way.

Have you experienced situations where you discovered a hidden reason for some undesirable behavior? How did you do it? What was the outcome? Leave a comment here so we can all learn together!

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