Three Tips for Motivating Challenging Team Members

Dr Michelle on Stage Engaging with Host of Event

One of the most common concerns that I hear from leaders is that working with difficult people consumes both time and energy, and risks the team’s success.The struggle to deal with people is a struggle that we all experience. After all, isn’t life challenging enough without having to deal with having to deal with motivating challenging team members?
Failing to work well with people in our work environment that we experience as difficult, toxic, or what I oftentimes hear defined as “impossible to work with” comes with a double-sided toll. On an organizational level, difficult workplace relationships lead to decreased engagement and productivity to the point of endangering the company’s performance and success.

Workplace stress directly impacts our overall health in a concerning way that cannot be ignored.

When Stanford researchers looked into how workplace stress affects health costs in the US market, they found that it led to spending of nearly $190 billion — roughly 8% of national healthcare outlays — and nearly 120,000 deaths each year.
The American Psychological Association (APA) has recently found that in high-pressure firms, healthcare costs are 50% greater than at other organizations. Workplace stress is estimated to cost the U.S. economy more than $500 billion dollars, and, each year, 550 million workdays are lost due to stress on the job.
Looking at the hazards of failing to work collaboratively with all team members, and in particular, with those that we experience as difficult and challenging, it is clear that this should become a priority in terms of tools and strategies that need to become available for leaders
Here are the three most important tips for engaging and motivating challenging team members- even if you consider them difficult, impossible to work with, or the source of all stress in your everyday workplace life:

Tip #1: Ask Simple Questions on a Weekly Basis

One of the most common mistakes that leaders make is assuming. When leaders assume that everything is ok and then discover a multitude of problems that are already in a progressive state of harming employees’ motivation, precious time is lost. It is those challenging employees that are important to figure out the relationships with because typically they are an extreme version of what more ‘subtle’ and ‘reasonable’ employees feel.
Here is a simple weekly survey you can use to gain information on an ongoing basis:

  • Describe your work experience this week in one word. Explain your one word in one sentence,

This allows focus and clarity on workplace experience and opens the door for team members to express what is on their minds so that it can be addressed immediately.

  • Describe a good day of work you had this week in one or two sentences.

This gives clarity to both you and team members on what does work, what is good- so that it can be highlighted and enhanced.

  • List three things that motivated you to do your work every day this week.

I am a big fan of asking directly. Why guess what motivates employees when you can actually ask them directly?

  • What is one thing that I could do to make you more productive?

This has to be just one thing. It will give you immediate feedback on how you can support your team members and what you can do on your end to keep them motivated and engaged. 

Tip #2: Focus on the Three Types of Clarity (PRT):

Clarity of purpose

Clarity of purpose is the wind in our sails. The human mind has an innate need to know why we do what we do in order to be motivated to do it. One of my favorite scenes about it is from Alice in Wonderland:
“Cat: Where are you going?
Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
– Alice in the Wonderland

It is your responsibility

It is your responsibility as a leader to define to the team where they are going and why they are going there. I oftentimes find that leaders themselves are not clear on communicating the purposes of their actions, as directions and changes come down the chain of command. Clarify the ‘why’ to yourself first as a leader, and once it is clear to you- go ahead and clarify the why to your team members. Your team needs to go at all times where they are going and why. Otherwise, just like the cat says, the ‘how’ doesn’t matter, it simply will not work.
Overlap of responsibilities is when all hell breaks loose with challenging people becoming more challenging and everybody getting disengaged and unmotivated. This can easily be avoided if leaders take the time to be crystal clear (and I would recommend in a clear and simple written document) on the exact scope of team members’ responsibility. If there is overlap (and there usually is), make sure to define how the overlap works: what prevails? What happens if? Lack of clarity is your worst enemy as a leader when it comes to team members’ areas of responsibility.

Clarity of Tasks:

So often I hear from team members that they are not clear on what exactly they are being asked to do. It is a leaders’ responsibility to shy away from the judgment of team members as difficult one way or another and instead focuses on assisting them in performing the tasks by breaking them down and defining them as clearly as possible.

Tip #3: Provide Immediate Verbal Rewards

According to a recent study by Cornell researchers published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people who received immediate, frequent rewards for completing small tasks reported more interest and more enjoyment in their work, compared with people who received delayed rewards only given out at the end of a long project. Positive verbal reinforcement is a tool that leaders can use to increase the motivation of team members. It costs leaders no more than their focus and it has incredible impact, in particular on people that have a hard time and struggle.
The two underlying purposes of workplace positive reinforcement are:

  1. To acknowledge the desired behavior; and
  2. To encourage the desired behavior.

Here is the GASP Model for providing positive verbal feedback:

Genuine- Give verbal praise only when you truly mean it, or your tone or body language will disclose what you really think.
Attentive- An opportunity for praise is a communication opportunity, and communication is always two ways. Be present and attentive for any information or cues, verbal and nonverbal.
Specific- Verbal praise should always be as specific as possible- what exactly did you notice and why exactly was that important/commendable?
Prompt- Do not wait for the next quarterly meeting. Be prompt. Every day is an opportunity to recognize effort as a leader. Did you saw something good? Command it promptly.

Closing Thoughts For Motivating Challenging Team Members

Leaders, deeming a team member as challenging does not excuse your responsibility to work closely with them and support them. As a leader, you’re responsible for ensuring they become successful and motivated team members. With the right tools and a positive and non-judgmental approach, tremendous progress can be achieved.

Dr. Michelle Rozen
Dr. Michelle Rozen

Dr. Michelle Rozen, Ph.D., is a highly respected authority on the psychology of change. She is one of the most booked motivational speakers nationwide as well as internationally, and a frequent guest on media outlets such as NBC, ABC, FOX News, and CNN on topics related to dealing with change in our world and in every aspect of our lives, so that we can do better and feel better.

Her most recent book, 2 Second Decisions helps people power through with their most challenging decisions through turbulent times.

Dr. Michelle Rozen consistently speaks for Fortune 500 companies and her clients include some of the most recognizable companies in the world including Johnson & Johnson, Merrill Lynch, Pfizer, and The U.S. Navy. She holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in Psychology and resides in the greater NYC area.

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