With Martin G. Moore

Episode #151

Motivating Process Workers: Mundane Jobs Are Tough

I was being interviewed for a podcast in the US a few weeks ago, and the interviewer asked an excellent question: he said, “It’s all well and good when you talk about motivating professionals and senior leaders, but not everyone has jobs like that. How do you motivate people who have mundane, repetitive, and mind-numbing jobs?”

Although we tend to imagine occupations like cleaners, fruit pickers, and production line workers when we think about mundane jobs, we may have many of these types of workers in our own offices and work groups. Think of the payroll, accounts payable, and accounts receivable departments.

In this episode, I reference a fabulous documentary, American Factory, which treats this subject exceptionally well. I also give six tips for motivating the people who do these difficult jobs. You don’t have to be a high flyer to deserve competent leadership – it’s a right, not a privilege.

Generate Your Free
Personalized Leadership Development Podcast Playlist

As a leader, it’s essential to constantly develop and improve your leadership skills to stay ahead of the game.

That’s why I’ve created a 3-question quiz that’ll give you a free personalized podcast playlist tailored to where you are right now in your leadership career!

Take the 30-second quiz now to get your on-the-go playlist 👇

Take The QuizTake The Quiz


Episode #151 Motivating Process Workers: Mundane Jobs Are Tough

I was being interviewed for a podcast in the US a few weeks ago, and the interviewer asked an excellent question. He said, “It’s all well and good when you talk about motivating professionals and senior leaders, but not everyone has jobs like that. How do you motivate people who have mundane, repetitive and mind numbing jobs?”

This is such an excellent question because although these types of jobs have reduced substantially in number over the last couple of decades, there are still plenty of them around. Although we tend to imagine occupations like cleaners, fruit pickers, and production line workers, when we think about mundane jobs, we may have many of these types of workers in our own offices. Think of the payroll, accounts payable, and accounts receivable departments.

Even though these roles can now be largely automated with intelligence software, most organisations are slow to adopt, and we have people working in them. We need to recognise the nuances of leading people in these types of jobs and ensure we give them the best leadership we possibly can. Just because their jobs might not seem that exciting or high value doesn’t change the fact that like everyone else in the workforce, they deserve competent leadership. It’s a right. It’s not a privilege.

  • I’ll start today by taking a look at a fascinating documentary that treats this subject particularly well

  • I’ll go on to draw a few simple and obvious conclusions about that

  • Then I’ll give you my six tips for motivating people in mundane roles, or more to the point perhaps how not to de-motivate them.


There was a Netflix documentary released a little while ago called American Factory. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommended. It won the Oscar in 2019 for the best documentary feature. It’s an absolutely fascinating look at the differences between Chinese and American culture in an environment where they’re highly incentivised to work together closely to deliver a successful outcome. I won’t spoil it for you by going into too much detail, but I do want to give you a sense of my learnings from it because it’s instructive in so many ways.

It’s set in a former General Motors plant near Dayton, Ohio, which was closed in 2008. At that time, 10,000 local jobs were lost. I assume that’s related businesses in the supply chain of community that supported the plant as well as the plant workers themselves. In 2010, Chinese companies started to invest in shuttered US factories to bring them back to life.

This was very welcome foreign direct investment at the time. In 2014 GM’s old Maraine assembly plant was acquired by a Chinese company named Fuyao to produce glass for automotive assembly.

At the time Fuyao actually had 70% of the global market in auto glass. Fuyao hired an American workforce and American management, and also brought many Chinese into the factory, so the two cultures merged.

This is as much a case study in cultural integration as it is anything else. For example, the Chinese management’s view of Americans was this; they have a sense of casualness and informality. They speak directly, they don’t hide anything. They dislike obstructions and theory in their daily lives. They’re slow and they have to keep being trained over and over. They’re inefficient and their output is low, but every time the Chinese owners tried to manage this, the American workers sought to unionise.

The billionaire chairman of Fuyao says at one point, “The point of living is to work”. Now nothing is as stark an illustration of the differences. But the Americans also had a view on the Chinese way, which was, of course, an equally valid perspective. In the American’s eyes they thought the Chinese were quite happy to ask the workers to do things that weren’t safe in order to keep up with production schedules.

For example, using forklifts to lift loads that the machines were not rated for. There was a prevailing view that they didn’t respect the workers. As one worker said, “They tell us what to do, but they don’t tell us why”.

You can see this play out during different parts of the documentary. In the lead up to the factory opening, the Chinese focus was on working hard to reach the major milestone. The Chinese had left their families back at home to come to work there and they had to do a two year stint at minimum. They had a strong culture of doing the best for the business.

For the American workers the initial excitement of having industry returned to their town, after what was for many, a long stint of unemployment, gave way to dissatisfaction with the way the factory was being run.This caused them to focus on their rights and entitlements, and they started to unionise. Even though they were being paid quite poorly, the company was still losing money. So Chinese workers focused on improving the business and American workers focused on the fact that they deserve more pay and better conditions.

Even though I’ve just outlined some of the cultural differences between the Chinese and Americans in that factory, the documentary gives some pretty strong clues about motivating people in mundane jobs, that have absolutely nothing to do with cultural differences.

Some workers, mainly the Chinese, had the view that every piece of glass matters. Our customers are counting on us. That’s about focusing on the greater good beyond the day-to-day challenges that you might face. And this is the first thing, and it’s quite important.

Next, there was a widely known fact that the Dayton factory had to produce at the same level of efficiency, cost, and quality, as if the glass were coming from a Fuyao factory in China. That’s about the competitive landscape. Having your people understand a little about market forces and competition is a really important part of helping them to build perspective. Without it, the insularity lets them forget that their only guarantee of future success is when the product is made as well and as cheaply, as other products that are available in the same market, and people purchase them. Looking outside the world, outside the factory, is the second thing of note.

Then the chairman actually said at one point, “The most important thing is not how much money we earn, but how we change America’s view of the Chinese”. This is the concept of taking pride in your work. The higher order purpose that drives a will to achieve more. This is the third key thing. But the sense that management may be asking you to do things that aren’t safe or to put you physically or mentally at risk, well, that’s pretty much going to spoil the party every single time. If your people don’t feel valued for who they are and what they do, the results are entirely predictable. They’ll start to focus on their rights and entitlements, instead of focusing on expectations and responsibilities.

I’ve seen the sense of gratitude in industrial workers when they know that management is genuinely interested in their welfare above all else, and that they’d never put making a dollar in front of the wellbeing of their people. But I’ve also seen the negative impacts of what happens when people get the sense that you aren’t looking after them and you don’t care about their wellbeing. Nothing else matters if you can’t get over that bridge.

Even though the leadership foundations remain the same, motivating people in repetitive, low skill process jobs, can be much more difficult. In the words of one worker in the documentary, “Doing the same thing over and over again, wears on you. Body and mind. And I find myself asking, why am I doing this?”

Most workers only do a job like that because they lack alternatives, often through no fault of their own. And they are simply there to make enough money to pay the bills and put food on the table. That’s it.

I want to give you a slightly different perspective. This is not just for people who are doing the really mundane, low-level, repetitive work. In every person’s role there are things that they have to do that are pretty mind numbing.

For example, computer programmers love to write code, but they hate to write documentation. So for a software developer, writing documentation is the equivalent of working on a factory floor.

As a leader, you have to motivate them to do the things that they need to do because they’re an essential part of the role. So you need to think a little bit creatively about this. Now obviously if you’re mindful of these tips, you’re likely to get better results in these circumstances. Doing these things conserve to motivate your people, but at the very least, take these lessons to heart so that you don’t fall into the obvious traps that are likely to de-motivate them.

#1 Show your people that they matter

No matter how mundane the job, this is still a human being. There are lots of ways to show people they matter, but start by being really clear that you care about their wellbeing above anything else.

They say that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. This is especially true for workers in jobs where they will instinctively feel undervalued. Don’t point out the bleeding obvious.

For example, they know that they can be easily replaced. They don’t need to be reminded of that fact. Instead, tell them how important they are to the overall picture. Listen to your people. No matter what, the people doing the job are closer to it than you are as a leader. When they have concerns, listen carefully. And I don’t mean go through the motions of listening. I mean really listen. Ask clarifying questions to make sure you understand. Probe them for their thoughts on how to improve the work they’re doing. Help them devise solutions so they’re part of the process and feel as though they have some autonomy.

#2 Show your people how they make a difference

It’s important that they see how they contribute to the overall purpose of the organisation. Low skilled workers are no different. In fact, it may be even more important in those cases because the answer isn’t always intuitively obvious.

In any business, in any team, the objective is to draw a line from the top of the organisation at the purpose and strategy level, to the bottom, where most of the operational work is done. If there’s a strong alignment between the ultimate purpose and what people need to do to feel successful, they will view their work differently.

The last thing you want is for people to feel that they’re just a cog in the wheel and that their effort doesn’t matter. So show them how what they do today contributes to the overall success of the business.

#3 Give them an external focus

It’s really important that people don’t become insular in their thinking.

They might feel as though they’re working really hard or that their performance and the performance of the team is first rate. The more insular they become, the more this is likely to occur, regardless of what the truth is about their actual performance. So look around. Look at your competitors. Look at global benchmarks. Look at other teams in your business. This helps to build a certain camaraderie, as you encourage people to band together, to try improve in the name of the common cause.

As long as people are focused on making improvements to compete against something or someone else, they can’t help but shift their focus away from their normal egocentric view of the world. But also recognise that if you aren’t looking after the basic needs of your people and giving them the sense that they’re valuable and worthwhile, this will fall on deaf ears.

#4 Provide visibility of information

There’s a perennial discussion about how much information your people should be able to access. Particularly when we talk about the financials of the business. In publicly listed companies, it’s much easier to determine. Accounts are published for all to see. Investor presentations are on the company website. There’s a lot of readily accessible information, which of course brings its own problems. But in privately owned businesses, that’s simply not the case. People don’t necessarily see any information on the overall performance of the business.

My view is that it’s preferable to give people as much information on business performance as you possibly can, not the commercial and confidence things, obviously, because you have to assume it’s going to end up on the front page of the paper, even if you do trust your employees.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned the book before by Jack Stack called The Great Game of Business. Stack pioneered the concept of open book management. The business he ran SRC was at the time a failing unit of international harvester. What happened was that Stack basically decided to give his people full transparency of the company’s financials. He gave them financial literacy education. He let them see how what they did on a daily basis in a production and operation sense affected the financial performance of the business.

The result of this was that the day-to-day decisions that people made were much better than they otherwise would have been. And the company thrived as a result. People in those mundane jobs, in the international harvest of factories, realised that when they had control over the outcomes and they could make some decisions that made a difference, they wanted to act in the best interest of the organisation. So the visibility of the information is critical.

#5 Give people some self-determination and choice

With less educated or low skilled workers, it’s much easier to fall into the command and control mode. Don’t just tell people what to do, even if their work is relatively straightforward. As with all good leadership, you need to make it clear what result you need, but to give your people some say in how that’s achieved.

Sure, some things have to be done a certain way, there’s no doubt about that. And in low skill jobs the name of the game is to seek efficiency through consistency and repetitive excellence. But let people come to you with ideas for making it better. And if they can meet your objectives, let them do it with their own flare. This may be the only joy that they get in an otherwise mind numbing job.

#6 Rally them around a compelling goal

An external threat can sometimes be a rallying point for your people, regardless of the type of jobs that they do. In the lead up to the IPO at Aurizon, the compelling goal of having to compete in an open market, effectively working without a net, was something everyone could rally around. And we used it as a motivating force.

At CS Energy, the changing wholesale electricity market and the imminent closure of coal-fired plants, was a rallying point to look at greater efficiency in asset management and operations.

But one of the better stories of rallying around a compelling goal is chronicled in a book from the early ’90’s called Maverick. And no, not the Tom Cruise version of Maverick. Ricardo Semler, the author, was a Brazilian businessman. His company, Semco Partners, had faced extinction in the wake of the government’s regulatory changes, which were designed to combat Brazil’s hyperinflation crisis of the late 1980s. Semler passed a huge amount of control to the people in the company to work out how to ensure its survival.

Now the interesting thing, is that the compelling goal of saving the company, combined with greater autonomy to make decisions and better access to information, aka Jack Stack, enabled the business to improve dramatically. Semco went from $4 million in revenues in 1982 to $212 million in 2003. There doesn’t always have to be an existential crisis in order for this to work. But if there’s a compelling force, or external driver of business success that’s visible to you, bring your people into the fold and let them help.

People who do mundane, repetitive and unskilled work usually do it pretty tough. There’s no self actualisation and growth. There’s little intrinsic reward. There’s little opportunity for advancement. The only thing they have sometimes is what their leader can bring to them. You have the same opportunity here that you have for your most capable, intelligent, and educated people. It just takes some thought and effort to make it work. And when it does, it’s great for the individuals and for the team.



  • Episode #30: When Money Doesn’t Motivate – Listen here

  • Episode #36: If Money Doesn’t Motivate, What Does? – Listen here

  • Explore other podcast episodes – Here

  • Take our FREE Level Up Leadership Masterclass – Start now

  • Leadership Beyond the Theory- Learn More


Here’s how you can make a difference:

  • Subscribe to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast

  • Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts

  • Repost this episode to your social media

  • Share your favourite episodes with your leadership network

  • Tag us in your next post and use the hashtag #nobsleadership