How to motivate someone you don’t like

Here are some strategies on improving relations with such employees

In my experience, it’s almost impossible for managers to motivate people they don’t like (except perhaps with fear, which is not ideal). So, for the sake of employee engagement – and your own mental health – it’s important to invest some energy in learning to like at least something about each of your staff.

Before you even try to motivate a person you don’t like, take ownership of your feelings and assumptions. If the phrase “He makes me so angry” or “She drives me nuts” ever plays in your head, you need to change your thinking.

Recognise that anger, frustration, or mistrust is your reaction and that no one has the ability to make you feel something without your consent.

Be curious about why you react the way you do and see if you can get to the root of the issue.


You need to own your dislike; your team member does not. Once you have a sense of what behaviours or characteristics you’re reacting to, employ one or more of the strategies below:

1. If you feel uncomfortable around an employee, increase your time together. It may sound like counterintuitive advice, but if you feel awkward, frustrated, or angry around one of your employees, you probably try to avoid her and may even struggle to make eye contact when you're together.

Imagine how demoralising it can be for the employee whose boss won’t even look her in the eye! To change the dynamic, you need to actually create more opportunities to be together, so you can get to know the person’s back-story. Try opening up a conversation by saying, “You and I haven’t had much of an opportunity to get to know one another. What are the most important things to know about you?”

2. If you find an employee's habits annoying, focus on the positive. Constantly focusing on what you want the person to change can really be a downer (for both of you). Instead, redirect your attention to what you do like and respect about the person.

Think about one trait or habit that impresses you-even if it’s a strength that is sometimes overapplied. Does the person plan diligently? Is he a fan favourite among customers? Does he bring attention to the risks inherent in your strategies? Pay more attention to the positive contributions that you want to encourage.

The employee will be motivated by hearing how the team is counting on his strengths to be successful.

3. If you think your employee acts disrespectfully, get to the root of the behaviour. If the source of your dislike for an employee is bad behaviour, you won't be able to motivate the person unless you have some empathy.

Most bad behaviour is not intentionally destructive; it’s self-protective. Figure out what the person is trying to protect. Does he have fragile self-esteem? Is she worried about something? Dig deep.

Ask open-ended questions such as “What’s going on for you?” or “What did this discussion trigger?” or “What are you concerned about?”

When you figure out what’s beneath the behaviour, you’ll have a better sense of how to motivate good behaviour.

For example, if you uncover a self-esteem issue, you might determine that an employee needs more opportunities in the spotlight, or that another might be more motivated by small, manageable assignments that allow room for growth without taking undue risk. Liane Davey is the vice president of team solutions at Knightsbridge Human Capital. Her new book is You first: inspire our team to grow up, get along, and get stuff done. In association with Harvard Business Review