Hit 'em with the carrot
When it comes to motivating employees, save on your stick budget and just hit them with the carrot.
That may sound glib, but I’m serious. Here’s a specific technique that’s effective for both discipline and motivation – two things so intertwined they might as well be one. Let me stress that the tool you’re about to get needs a light heart and parental attitude; even though the goal is a serious and important one.
The first step (after identifying the problem employee) is to have a brief conversation in that person's workspace. Doing it there is less intimidating and more nonchalant than your office (the less chalant, the better).
Now, without naming a particular issue, mention something about how office-wide morale seems to be slipping and you have to discipline someone as an example.
Follow that immediately with: “From now on, whenever someone lacks enthusiasm, they’ll have to go to lunch with me. It won’t be fun, but I have to nip this in the bud.” You’re hinting that this employee is the sacrificial lamb and not the one at fault, keeping it less adversarial.
The tone of your voice is important here. You want to be exaggerating “stern authority figure” with a touch of smile so that you seem to be almost kidding.
A free meal is a bit of a carrot, of course, but you’re making it out to be a stick. Lunch is the perfect place to ignore the work problem. Instead, connect on a personal level. Enjoy a nice lunch as almost equals - as long as you maintain the boss/employee distinction.
As you drive back to work (you’ve wisely chosen a place far, far away), you need to ask if the employee has "learned his lesson." Do it in the fake stern voice with a fake stern face. This broaches the real reason for lunch in a light and friendly way.
You now have the time and opportunity to say: “But seriously, is everything alright at work?” and find out what the problem is.
Your employee’s lack of effort might be as simple as feeling unnoticed. But you’ve just spent two hours together, and that means a lot. If it’s a different reason, you can solve it right then because the lines of communication are as open as they’ll ever be.
From then on, you two will have a special rapport, and you'll be able to motivate that employee with a simple “Do I need to take you to lunch again?” in your artificially stern voice.
This is childish and silly, right? Well, so is just about every issue managers deal with – and that’s unlikely to change any time soon.
Leaders lead, and sometimes that means taking out your teeth. Punishment can be dealt so that leniency isn’t seen as weakness. As long as they know that underneath the faux stern is real stern - the point will be gotten.
This isn’t right for every situation or every employee - and it may not work more than once per staff member - but I urge you to try it. As long as the employee knows you’re willing to hit them with it, a carrot can be your most effective tool for both motivation and discipline.