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How to Use Motivational Interviewing to Increase Employee Job Performance



Motivational Interviewing is a technique that has been used in mental health for decades to encourage clients who are feeling stuck in their treatment. It's goal is to create a sense of purpose in the client and to encourage intrinsic motivation foward. Over the past few years, this technique has become mainstream and is now being used in many organizations to encourage underperforming employees to increase performance. The benefits of motivational interviewing include increased employee ownership of their performance, employees creating solutions for problems, and employees feeling more connected to their managers.


What is Motivational Interviewing?

Motivational Interviewing is an evidence-based approach to having conversations with employees that encourages free discussion and creates an understanding of what the employee is looking for. Rather than highlighting an employee's deficits, it uses a strengths-based approach to encourage employees to think about their future and supports employees in identifying ways to reach their goals. It is most useful in situations where management feels that they have had multiple conversations with an employee about how they continue to underperform without seeing the employee improve.


Specific Motivational Interviewing Strategies.

There are a few specific Motivational Interviewing strategies that your leadership team needs to be able to use in order for this skill to work. Below is a step-by-step approach to motivational interviewing that can be used in difficult conversations with underperforming employees.



  1. Open-ended questions: It is best to start your meeting with an open-ended question that allows the employee to think about what's been happening in their job performance. An example of an open-ended question might be "I would love to hear about how you think you have been performing with project X over the past few months and what has contributed to your performance."

  2. Affirmations: Whenever possible, affirm the positive traits of your employee to build on self-esteem and trust. This is vital in also creating an atmosphere geared towards problem solving and allowing employees to have ownership over their own behaviors. An example of an affirming statement might sound like this: "I hear that you've really been putting in a lot of hours lately to try to get this project done on time. I am grateful for how much you have worked on this project and can see that this project's success is really important to you".

  3. Reflective Listening: Reflective listening is a psychology term that simply means that you are reflecting back to the employee what you are hearing them say. The purpose of reflective listening is to understand the employee rather than to poke holes in their responses. It gives the manager an opportunity to make sure that they really understand what the employee is saying. An example of reflective listening sounds like this: "So what I am hearing you say is that it's become harder for you to remain focused on this project because you've had stressful interactions with your colleagues."

  4. Summarize: Once the employee has highlighted a few key statements, ask if you could summarize what you have heard so far. The idea is to draw together a few key concepts in order to show the employee how things are related. Summarizing also allows the employee to take ownership of their own behavior. An example of this might be: "I would love to summarize what I have heard so far if that's OK with you. I've heard that this project is really important to you and that you've put a lot of time into it. I've also heard that the biggest issues holding the project up are stressful interactions with your colleagues, you having a hard time prioritizing tasks, and you are worried that you might be burning out. Did I get that right?"

  5. Change Talk: Once the manager and employee have a clear understanding of the problems, change talk can start. This is speech that favors movement towards a particular change goal. An example of this could look like this: "Now that we have established the current hurdles to completing the project, what is the one hurdle that if taken away, would create the most positive change?"

  6. Importance Ruler: Have the employee quantify how important each hurdle is in order to guage the employee's understanding of the issues and they are impacting performance. The importance ruler also allows for you to measure progress throughout. An example of this could look like this: "So the biggest issue right now is your worries about stressful interactions with your colleagues on this project. On a scale of 1-10 (1 = not important, and 10 = very important), how important is having positive interactions with your colleagues?"

  7. Elaboration: This is the moment in the conversation to elaborate on change talk. Have the employee speak about their interactions with colleagues. Focus the conversation on how to foster positive interactions with colleagues. An example of this could look like this: "I would love to hear more about your interactions with your colleagues and what you would like them to look like in order to meet the project deadlines."

  8. Self-efficacy: The final step is to support the employee in their perceived ability to successfully achieve their goal. Clear behavioral goals that the employee has created and can implement themselves is the way to go. For example: "So what do you want to do in the upcoming week to improve your interactions with your colleagues." Use reflective listening and affirmations to highlight positive steps forward such as "I love that idea of you praising your colleagues".


Motivational Interviewing is a skill that anyone can learn and is especially useful for supervisors and managers to have. It takes practice through role-plays and case studies to learn this skill so feel free to reach out if you wish for your managers and supervisors to learn how to use Motivational Interviewing in your organization.





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