4 Tips for Working with People Who Couldn’t Care Less about Their Job

UPDATED: October 14, 2015
PUBLISHED: June 11, 2015

Gallup’s latest workplace engagement study says 20 percent of people are actively disengaged in the work they do and that at least 50 percent are not engaged whatsoever. For the less mathematically inclined, that equates to, at most, a mere 30-percent engagement. Now, many Type A personalities who define themselves through work (as most leaders of business are) seem to find this notion unbelievable. Surely we are all meant to find meaning in our work.

But perhaps this is a narrow view of human beings and what drives us. Some people seek inspiration and acknowledgement, others seek connection and a sense of belonging, others are driven by intellect and the satisfaction of solving something difficult, and some love being in action and getting things done.

The same things do not motivate all people, and it would be foolish of us to think it is so. Equally, it is naive to presume everyone cares about his or her job. For many people, their work does not define them; it is merely a means to an end, a pay packet, a roof over their head, cash to travel with or money for raising their children.

As simple a truth as this may be, we seem to struggle with it, judging by the billions of dollars employees spend every year attempting to ignite passion and inspire people. Rather than calling people wrong for not getting their inspiration from work and constantly trying to change it, we can look to make work serve what matters to them, thus making the job more meaningful on their terms.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

1. Link your values to theirs.

The problem with so many mission statements is they are longwinded and semantically loaded. No one can remember them let alone apply them in a way that has any meaning to them (no wonder people are so disengaged!). A far better approach is to make mission statements so simple that everyone who comes across them can remember them—so straightforward that anyone could think of a way they could contribute (or at least not contradict them).

The T-shirt test is a wonderful way to tell if your mission has any hope of sticking. Ask yourself this question: Would someone willingly wear it on a T-shirt? Making electric cars awesome for Tesla, beauty that isn’t ugly for The Body Shop and making tech human for Apple would all pass that test, and so should your mission.

2. Make failure difficult.

Making failure hard is a fantastic way to work with people who don’t care about their jobs. After all, if the job is a temporary measure—for example, while a student gets through college—expecting unwavering commitment and passion really is a big ask; it is more effective to focus on making our systems foolproof. To do this, we must put as few steps as possible in place and imagine that people are too lazy to be bothered to do anything extra.

Design beats discipline after all. Now this may seem a pessimistic view, but if we design imagining we have a workforce that does not care and our systems still work, then anything above that is a bonus. If even our worst employee on a bad day can get something useful done because the process is that simple, then the business is in good shape.

3. Incentivize them with something relevant.

What you value is not what the people who work with you or for you necessarily care about. Leaders tend to think everyone is motivated by promises of promotions and recognition. Yet if someone’s motivation is to see their kids grow up and to be present at every baseball game, a promotion may be the worst thing that could happen. A better strategy in this example might be extra time off for family moments or a pay raise in the form of a college fund. Get to know what the people around you value and then make sure your incentives marry up to what they care about.

4. Look for clues.

In selling, the sale is always in the interest of the person buying—and a job is no different. If you are an employer, then you are selling working for you. There is a reason people fight to work at Google. They have sold the dream, not to mention the kudos that comes with it.

Think about what you are selling and look for clues about what people care about. Someone with a great number of family photos is probably motivated by making a better life for their family; someone who displays awards may seek promotion and recognition; and someone who puts up images of exotic places may be motivated by extra time off to travel. Better still, ask them what they care about—a direct question is really quite engaging.

How can you tell if an employee is unhappy? Know the 7 warning signs to watch out for.

A behavioral researcher and strategist, as well as an author, educator, international speaker and social commentator, Dan Gregory specializes in behaviors and belief systems – what drives, motivates and influences us.  One of the most respected voices in the industry, Dan is a regular on ABC’s Gruen Planetand has worked with some of the biggest brands in the world: Coca-Cola, Unilever, Vodafone, MTV and News Ltd.