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Feeling Unmotivated? Here’s How to Get Out of the Rut


ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

Okay, let’s all be honest with each other for a minute. Yes, if you’re listening to this podcast, you’re probably someone who cares a lot about your work and career. I hope you can tell that I care a lot about mine too. But there will come days, maybe even months or years when we just aren’t feeling it. We’ve lost motivation, we’re burnt out, we’re just bored. We’re going through the motions of our jobs, but not enjoying them or excelling in the ways that we could be. This happens from the front lines to the C-suite.

Most of the advice about how to address the problem is directed at managers and organizations: how they can get us more engaged. But is it possible for us to snap ourselves out of these ruts?

Our guests today say it is, and they’ve developed a four-step process for doing so. They’re here to walk us through it. Robin Abrahams is a Research Associate Harvard Business School and Boris Groysberg is a Professor at HBS. Together, they wrote the HBR article, Advice for the Unmotivated. Robin, Boris, welcome.

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

BORIS GROYSBERG: Thank you for having us, Alison.

ALISON BEARD: Let’s start with the problem, which I think that you initially called “The Working Dead” when we were working on the article together. How do you know when you slipped into this kind of disengagement? How do you measure it or quantify it?

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: You can’t really quantify it because you know it when you’re there. In the words of William Kahn, who was the person who wrote the first article about disengagement, it’s a withdrawal of the self. You’re just not yourself at work. That’s why we called it The Working Dead, because you do feel like a zombie. You’re not putting forth physical, emotional, cognitive energy. You’re kind of going through the motions. You’re operating on your limbic system a lot of the time.

BORIS GROYSBERG: One executive described it, “I was giving work my time, but I did not give it my heart.” The second one was, “I was feeling empty and frustrated like I was running in a race without a finish line.”

ALISON BEARD: In terms of the responses that you got from reaching out to HBR readers and executive education participants, do you see this happening at every level of the organization?

BORIS GROYSBERG: I guess most interesting things in our research, that we can clearly see this happening at a frontline level of organization. A number of people have told us, “Look, the higher up you are, the less you should feel disengaged.” We have so far had conversations with about 20 plus CEOs. I mean, people who are actually running their own businesses. Disengagement reaches out as high as that group of people as well. So it feels to us it’s present at every level. It plays out in a different way, but it’s certainly present in every level.

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: The reason that people get disengaged from their work is because the demands of the job, be it emotional, physical, cognitive, time, logistics, overwhelm their personal resources, the support they’re getting, the amount of time they have, the knowledge they have, et cetera. That can happen at any level of the workplace. Also over the past three years, I would say demands have increased in almost every area of life. Resources are generally not keeping up for a lot of people.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, I think we’re all keenly aware of that. What about the problem of not necessarily burnout, but boredom, particularly mid-career when you’ve been doing the same job for a long time and can go through the emotions and still be competent?

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: If it’s feeling like a problem, then it is a problem. To some extent, this is very much, are you subjectively experiencing this as, “Oh, I have to go into the office again.” Or is it more like, “I’ve got this part of my life handled.” If you’re feeling it as a problem, then I would think it’s, especially these kinds of cases of just boredom, I kind of like the job, but I’m not entirely sure all of that, that our article is really especially well suited to address.

BORIS GROYSBERG: A few years ago, we did a piece on boredom. Some of the dynamics are actually somewhat different. The challenge with disengagement is that many people who are actually disengaged act on that disengagement. Disengagement is kind of costing the person who is disengaged as well as the organization that is employing that person. If you look at this, and I think you mentioned this in introduction, most of the advice and the research has been done like: How can we make Google a better place to work? How can we make John Smith or Jan Smith a better manager?

When we talk about engagement or disengagement, the focus has always been on organization and a manager. Can we make an organization? What are the practices that organization should employ and what can managers do? What Robin and I have experienced over the last few years as doing this project is imagine you are working for an organization that is not doing it, or for a manager that should not be managing. A lot of time we basically say, “Well, you should just leave and get another job.” Many people cannot leave, and so is there anything that you can do to any situation that engagement is not that prevalent to keep yourself more engaged or to keep yourself less disengaged?

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: But it really is, I think you hit it, a lot of our advice is very much geared around don’t make your situation worse. Because when people kind of hit an exhausted state, when they hit burnout, they will frequently act out. They’ll pull themselves back even further. They dig themselves into a little doom spiral of learned helplessness, and we’re wanting to arrest that cycle for folks.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, absolutely. Because you drift into an area where the disengagement isn’t just a bad feeling you have personally, but something that is destroying team culture, that’s diminishing your performance, that eventually might hurt your career.

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: That’s diminishing your ability to make wise decisions about what to do with your situation.

ALISON BEARD: Let’s dig into the process. Why don’t you first give us a quick overview of the four steps?

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: We call it the DEAR Method for Detachment, Empathy, Action, and Reframing. We did not just put them in that order to make the cool little acronym. It actually sort of works sequentially that people first need to detach from their emotional reactions and give themselves a little bit of distance to develop empathy, kindness for oneself and others that can then lead to appropriate actions to reassert your sense of agency that you can do something in the world, to reframing thinking logically about what is my situation? Is it the job? Is it me? Can I conceive of things in a different way?

ALISON BEARD: Do you see this as sort of a short-term immediate intervention every time you feel yourself disengaging? Or is it more about changing your mindset and behavior for the long-term so that you’re less likely to fall into that state?

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: I think both. A number of the things that we’ve advised, if I’m just having a particularly bad day at a job where I’m not… I mean, you don’t go in feeling “Yay, go team,” 100% every single day. Nobody’s like that. Even in a minor slump, I mean, one thing I tend to like to do is if I just feel like I’m not getting anywhere on my work, clean out the office refrigerator because everybody loves it. It puts everyone else slightly in your debt, and you can see the results of what you’ve done. A lot of times just that, having a genuine human connection with a colleague or customer, can be enough to get you over a puddle, but these processes can also be used to help you get across a river.

BORIS GROYSBERG: Also, some of the practices that we describe are just good practices for a long-term career.

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: True.

BORIS GROYSBERG: We talk about exercising and self-care. I think there’s a short-term impact of those practices. You mentioned that when you were reading, you were connecting to the ideas of the people. There are days when you just feel you are disengaged. Whatever that is, even though you might enjoy what you do and so on. I think there’s a short-term impact of those strategies, and I think some of them, if you practice them, would help you to build a sustainable long-term career as well.

ALISON BEARD: Detachment is the first step, but it seems like an odd one for people who are already feeling detached. What exactly do you mean and why is it helpful?

BORIS GROYSBERG: It is probably when people ask us, it’s I think out of the four, we keep getting this, “Wow, this is really counterintuitive.” But if you think about why you need this detachment, if you want to disengage a motivated state, having some distance and having some perspective, might be really, really uncomfortable, but long-term can provide you with some ideas or some strategies of how to get re-engaged again.

I mean, we heard stories from people enrolling to take some classes in a different city, taking time off to immerse themselves in something new, to get energized. I still remember a quote from somebody who goes, “The course gave me a lot of new ideas. I found myself feeling eager to start implementing them.” Learning something new can motivate you and get you re-excited about your work.

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: But the detachment isn’t just about detaching and finding things outside the work. It’s really about getting a little bit of distance, not from the work per se, but from your own emotions. So things like meditation, exercise, just getting out of doors, feeling your body can help you calm down, get in touch with your feelings a little bit, and get that distance that you need to make the right choices and not be stuck in a kind of flight or fight mode, or “I can’t do anything. Everything’s just terrible.” It will be forever to get yourself out of that emotional reactive pattern. If you weren’t in an emotionally reactive pattern, you wouldn’t have gotten disengaged and burnt out to begin with.

ALISON BEARD: One of the interesting tips was to try to talk to yourself in the third person. Give me an example of how I might get myself motivated to edit a 6,000 word article when I’m just not feeling it by talking to myself in the third person.

BORIS GROYSBERG: Robin and I practice this from time to time.

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: I’m not sure that it would motivate you for that. It’s more a question of if you’re trying to decide, oh gosh, do I even want to be in a job where I have to edit 6,000 word articles? Think about it as if it were honestly an HBS business case. Alison Beard woke up that spring morning wondering if she wanted to be here. You think through and you just sort of put yourself as a little protagonist because come on, it is always easier to solve other people’s problems than your own, right? So you think about yourself in the third person, and believe it or not, it will sort of trick your brain into thinking of it as someone else’s problems.

ALISON BEARD: Right. Yeah, what would I tell my best friend to do in this situation?

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: Exactly. Exactly.

ALISON BEARD: Okay, so the second step is empathy. What’s the advice on this front?

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: Empathy is very much a sort of two pronged thing. People often first think of it in terms of kindness, sympathy, I feel your pain. But there’s also the cognitive aspect of it, just like I feel your pain. Why did that happen to you? Let’s analyze this. Let’s try to think through other people’s points of view. Both of those are important to sort of re-energizing yourself. It’s also important to have empathy for yourself, have a degree of kindness towards yourself.

One thing that is very characteristic of people who are disengaged or burnt out is that they tend to act like automatons and treat other people in a dehumanizing manner as well. They don’t see the humanity. And to break out of that, to try to make those human connections, honestly fake it until you make it. But having emotional connections with people at work, it can be very crucial.

BORIS GROYSBERG: That’s why if you think about some of the kind of advice that we gave is, I mean, looking for friends and helping others. There’s two executives, their perspective really stand out in my mind. One, she talked about asking questions, looking for one-on-one conversations with employees at time of low motivation. Her quote was, “When I speak with my team, it makes me challenge. I have at hand feel less daunting. The mountain to climb is still there, but the conversation make me feel less alone in climbing.”

People look for those relations. Interesting enough, people reach out to their former mentors and coaches, and maybe if there’s one piece, and it’s kind of indirectly in that bucket, but if I have to add maybe one piece to it that we kind of missed, and I should give credit to a colleague Gamze Yucalglu is kind of practicing gratitude.

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: Yes, that’s a good one.

BORIS GROYSBERG: It was mentioned a few times. One of the executives said, “I remind myself of things I’m grateful about. This instantly changes my perspective.” That’s kind of like the gratitude practice. If I had to add one more, that’s the one that we probably need.

ALISON BEARD: I think the self-compassion piece is really important too, because I know I find myself when I’m not feeling motivated, getting mad at myself or feeling guilty for not being motivated.

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: This is another way that the thinking of yourself in the third person can help, because you wouldn’t be like that lazy, terrible Alison did this and that. You’d be more neutral about it. You take away that voice in your own head.

One of the really fun findings that I discovered when I was looking at the psychological research on all of this is that people who are suffering burnout at work feel better when they help others than when they themselves receive help. If you can do something for another person, you feel powerful, you feel good, you feel like you have a reason to be in this world.

ALISON BEARD: That totally resonates with me. I find that sort of what I do when I’m feeling unmotivated and then also guilty about feeling unmotivated, I will reach out to one of my best work friends, and we might commiserate a little bit, but then I find myself that I’m helping with his problems and he’s talking to me about not feeling bad about my problem. So sort of it’s that empathetic, virtuous circle happening.

ROBIN ABRAHAMS:

Exactly. And even in far worse situations than any workplace really, like POW camps and natural disasters. Boris and I studied a bit about survival psychology during the pandemic, and this is what has enabled people who go through horrific experiences like that without psychological damage, do it because they have connections with other people. You can get through almost anything if you can connect to the people that you’re going through it with.

ALISON BEARD: Okay. So the next step is action, which that actually seems the hardest because the whole point is that we don’t feel that we have the energy or motivation to do anything. You mentioned earlier cleaning out the office refrigerator. What other kind of actions might help?

BORIS GROYSBERG: It’s actually one of the hardest things when you are disengaged, is to take action. Maybe somewhere along the way we provide advice to people, say, look at small things first, tackle the little stuff, the one that you can concentrate on and get things done. Invest in outside activities. A number of people that we interviewed talked about just even simply doing daily to-do lists for both for business and the personal stuff, and setting up specific goals in the morning and then the exercise of crossing things off. Then one person said crossing things off felt like real progress.

Once you do it, you also have to celebrate those small accomplishments and it allows you to be at least feel a little bit more motivating.

ALISON BEARD: I make little boxes that I can do check marks in because that actually feels like happier than crossing things out.

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: I mean, we’ve all done the thing where you do the thing and then you write it down on your to-do list, so we can check it off. That’s not just me, right?

ALISON BEARD: 100% I do that.

BORIS GROYSBERG: That would be the three of us. Yeah.

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: Well, I’m going to take a slightly different tack on this, which is disengaged employees, by and large already are taking action. They’re just frequently taking unhelpful action. They are more likely to drink, use drugs, sleep, watch television, passive internet use on the job, playing pranks on coworkers. These are all dangers of disengagement. The reason – I told you this thing was sequential – the reason that we put emotional detachment, and then empathy first is to kind of get your head in the right space so that the action you take is the appropriate action, because people who are disengaged are often taking inappropriate actions that are just going to make their situation worse.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. So apart from tackling little tasks, are there any other types of actions you recommend?

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: One of the best, and surprisingly, is to invest yourself in something that is not your job, to develop a hobby, some kind of outside activity. There’s been some recent articles published that were really interesting where the assumption going in was that, oh, if somebody has a side hustle or a volunteer commitment, then they’re going to be less engaged at their job. And in fact, it was not the case at all. That sense of agency, empowerment, connection that you get from those other things transfer into the workplace and can make even a job that’s not particularly meaningful, feel meaningful and fulfilling.

BORIS GROYSBERG: If you do the D and the E, the first two steps, it might open up your eyes to see there are some pieces, parts of your jobs or maybe kind of something that – other jobs that exist in organization that you can do that really relates to your strength and can reenergize you as well. So looking for those. I’m talking about special projects, but not the special projects that nobody cares about, but the real special projects that almost enrich your job. We heard it from a number of people when they did the D and the E, it allowed them to see some things in an organization and pick some things that were slightly outside of their work incorporated into their jobs, and that was kind of enough to get them reengaged back at work.

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: The curiosity part of the empathy as you’re connecting with people, you’re talking to them about what are their experiences, what’s their area of expertise, will frequently give you some kind of path to moving forward. But if you go into these situations without some emotional detachment and some empathy, you’re just going to be flailing around.

ALISON BEARD: Okay, so finally the last step, reframing. Why is that helpful and how can people practically do it?

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: Reframing is once you’ve sort of reestablished, as it were, your humanity through empathy, through getting some distance on your own emotions, through taking some action and feeling like you can take meaningful action, reframing is kind of the one where you ask yourself, “Okay, what about the situation though? Is there a different way I can think of my job that will make it more fulfilling? Can I restructure it in some way?” Maybe the answer is yes, and you’ll have a better vision of how to do that. Maybe the answer is no, and then you do need to be moving on, but you’ll have a sense of what you want to be moving on to.

BORIS GROYSBERG: We provide three strategies for people. Examine your work identity, consider how other benefit from your work. But the one that I always… This speaks to me because I think about it a lot in my own work and in my own job is looking at the big picture. There are a number of different ways to get to that. We have an example of somebody who in the energy business. That person joined the leadership program when one of the exercises were to define his core values. Then what he did is got in the habit of asking himself daily what he’s doing today towards those type of core values and prioritize a lot of daily tasks around that.

He claimed that this has been tremendously helpful. So examining your values, why you do this for. And so that would be one. Another person talked about going to dinner with his sister, make him realize what’s in life, health, family, and that he was depleting a lot of his energy on short-term problems that really didn’t matter. This kind of looking at the big picture and also trying to understand what really matters to you is kind really important part of-

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: I feel a kind of idea floating around that people should always find their jobs intrinsically meaningful. Not everybody does. Not everybody gets jobs that are engaging. How do those people get through it? And the main way they do is by thinking about, this is what the job is providing to me. I’m providing for my family, I’m saving for my education, I’m doing this. It enables me to live in this community and do these things. It’s really okay if the job is kind of a means to an end.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, I think that makes sense.

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: There’s been a lot of research on the extent to which when people are doing unpleasant, boring tasks, repetitive physical labor or repetitive clerical labor, or studying long boring things, thinking about what they’re doing it for, what life outcomes they’re doing it for, really does help them get through it.

ALISON BEARD: What happens if you try all of these strategies and you still feel unmotivated? Is it a sign that you need to talk to your manager, that you do need to leave your job?

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: It might be a sign that you need to talk to your doctor. I’m not being sarcastic. I mean, there’s a lot of reasons that a person might really feel unable to pull themselves out of it. But yeah, there may be a point at which you do all of these things and then you look around and you’re like, oh, the problem is the situation.

BORIS GROYSBERG: I think if you think about engagement and you think about what’s controllable versus not, you look at research on engagement. There are differences by countries. There are differences by industries. There are even some differences between functions.

Those are things that are not really controllable. If you take a step back and say, “What is controllable?” The controllable thing is the organization you work for, hopefully over a period of time.

The controllable thing that the manager you work for. I always say, if you work for a bad company and you work for a bad manager, you are in hell. If you work for a great company and you work for a great manager, you are in heaven. But many of us are working for a great company and a bad manager or a great manager in a bad company. In those cases, if it’s a company’s great, bad managers, think about job rotations. Even if you’re going to take a lateral assignment, you will feel better. If your manager is the one who creating disengagement, moving to another manager would help you.

If it’s an organization, then not everybody has a chance to move. But you should seriously consider if you should switch organizations. By the way, a lot of people do for a lower compensation. Because what you have is if you can’t change the organization, if you cannot change the manager and you cannot change yourself, those are the three levers that’s available to you.

If you are unable to create engagement energy in yourself, you got to look at other things that you can control. Those are the three yourself, the person that you work for, and maybe the company that you work as well. We don’t advocate for turnover, but there comes the time that says I should be doing something else for somebody else.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. I’m going to shout-out two players on the Boston Celtics who just took less lucrative contracts to continue to play for the Celtics because they obviously felt they had a good coach at a good organization, which makes me as a fan very happy.

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: That’s a perfect example, yeah. And people will make a better choice if they’ve gone through these steps. They won’t run from, instead of to, they won’t resign in a harmful way that blows up their career and possibly who knows what else. They will make better choices if they’ve gone through all four of the steps first.

ALISON BEARD: Do either of you have a specific story about struggling with motivation and how you use this framework or a piece of the framework to get out of that rut?

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: I would say for me, one thing that has always protected me for years now against that kind of loss of motivation is I do invest myself in a lot of activities outside of work. I do theater. I wrote a play that’s going to be produced next year. I’m involved to some extent in my husband’s business. All of those things, it’s like if I’m having a bad day in one area, I can maybe make it up in another. Even if that’s not, I’m learning perspectives in one world that I can put into another, like, oh, this is really interesting. This also applies to this problem that I’m having over here. And so it kind of keeps everything fresh as well as keeping my network of weak ties and people that I don’t know that well active so that I can learn more things, discover new opportunities. Those things can really help inoculate you against that loss of motivation.

ALISON BEARD: Robin, Boris, it was really a pleasure working on this piece with you. I know that it helped me regain my motivation, which I really appreciated, and I hope it’s going to help others. Thanks for talking to me today.

ROBIN ABRAHAMS: Thank you so much.

BORIS GROYSBERG: Thank you very much, Alison.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Research Associate Robin Abrahams and Professor Boris Groysberg, both of Harvard Business School. Together, they wrote the HBR article, Advice for the Unmotivated.

We have more episodes and more podcasts to help you manage your team, your organization, and your career. Find them at HBR.org/podcasts or search HBR in Apple Podcast, Spotify or wherever you listen.

Thanks to our team, senior producer Mary Dooe, associate producer Hannah Bates, audio product manager Ian Fox, and senior production specialist, Rob Eckhardt. And thanks to you for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. We’ll be back with a new episode on Tuesday. I’m Alison Beard.



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