Building a Self-Motivated Staff

By focusing on posing the right questions instead of giving advice, pet store owners and managers can help their employees take responsibility for solving their own motivational problems.


Motivated pet store associates outperform those who lack motivation. Motivated employees care about their performance, initiate action, collaborate with others and provide support to team members—all of which are important to the success of a retail pet business. But motivation is not always a given, so coaching from a storeowner or manager may be necessary to encourage associates to excel and to help achieve the store’s goals.

Recognizing when employees’ motivation levels and morale are low is critical to identifying when coaching is needed. Motivated associates:

• Care about how well they perform—both as individuals and as part of a team. They are committed to providing exceptional customer service and are eager to develop new skills and take on new responsibilities.

• Take initiative to identify problems and propose solutions.

• Collaborate with coworkers to find ways to improve performance and solve problems.

• Provide a high level of mutual support to other team members.

Employees who fail to demonstrate these characteristics may be suffering from a lack of motivation and may benefit from coaching. While coaching is important to help motivate individual associates, your team’s effectiveness largely depends on its members’ ability to motivate themselves.

The most common techniques to improve motivation focus on giving advice, offering incentives and asking questions. The question approach is the most effective because it helps employees take responsibility for motivating themselves.

Giving Advice—A common approach to motivation coaching is to tell employees why it is important that they make an effort. This approach is rarely successful. Most people respond negatively or tune you out when they feel that they are being lectured.

Telling employees what they can do to motivate themselves often leads to playing the “Yes, but...” game. Unmotivated associates respond to your advice by saying, “Yes, but...” and then listing all of the reasons your advice will not work. They may even argue that their lack of motivation is your fault.

Offering Incentives—Another common technique to motivate employees is to offer incentives. Incentives are typically tied to meeting individual or team performance goals and may include:

• Praise or recognition

• Prestigious tasks

• New responsibilities

• Gift cards or cash bonuses

• Wage increases

Providing incentives can be very effective at motivating employees in the short term. Keep in mind that different things motivate different people, so you may need to tailor your incentive program for best effect.

Regardless of what type of incentives you offer, for longer-term results, associates must be able to motivate themselves.

Asking Questions—The most effective approach to this type of coaching is to encourage employees to take responsibility for motivating themselves. By posing questions and avoiding giving advice, you can help associates take responsibility for solving their own motivational problems.

The question style uses the following three steps:

Step 1: Ask “What” & “How” Questions
By asking “what” and “how” questions, you can help employees identify the reasons for their lack of motivation. This approach also allows associates to develop their own solutions.

Examples of this type of question include:

•  “What can you do about it?”

•  “What do you need to do to make this happen?”

•  “How can you make it less boring?”

•  “How can you challenge yourself?”

For example, consider a scenario where you want to motivate an associate to develop better merchandising skills so that he can take on new responsibilities. By asking a “how” question, you encourage this team member to take responsibility for solving his own motivational problems.

You: How do you think you can develop your merchandising skills so you can take on more challenging tasks?

Associate: I suppose I could spend some time with Carol—she’s always working on some kind of merchandising project.

Step 2: Use Silence
The second step in this coaching style is to stay silent after asking a question. Although it can be challenging to put this technique into practice, using silence places subtle pressure on the employee to respond and to continue brainstorming other solutions to a problem.

In the example scenario, after you ask the initial question, you should remain quiet to encourage the associate consider other options.

Associate: So what do you think of my solution?
You: Hmmmm...

Associate: Okay...I guess there are some problems with it. I’ll think about this some more and see if I can develop a more effective solution.

You: Good idea.

Step 3: Push for Detail
Once the associate you are coaching begins to respond to your questions, the next step is to push for more detail. By posing additional questions about how he will implement his solution, you encourage the associate to provide more and more detail. At the end of this process, the employee will have considered any challenges and developed a detailed action plan.

In the example scenario, you are pushing the associate for specific detail about a possible solution to his motivational problem.

Associate: So I thought some more about it, and I could also take the Pet Store Pro merchandising chapters to improve my skills.

You: When will you be able to study the merchandising chapters?

Associate: Well, next week, we’ll be busy getting ready for the big sale, but this week should be slower.

You: Do you have time to start the Merchandising Fundamentals chapter tomorrow?

Associate: I’m supposed to help clean the fish tanks tomorrow morning, but I can start the chapter after my lunch break.

Motivating employees to excellent performance is a fundamental part of any manager’s job. But it’s not always easy to determine how to do so. Using a “question style” of coaching—asking questions, using silence and pushing for detail—empowers associates to take responsibility for motivating themselves.

Stephanie A. Kaplan is the director of online education for the Pet Industry Distributors Association. She manages PIDA’s free online training program, Pet Store Pro. Since it was first launched in 2008, over 5,000 retailers have turned to Pet Store Pro for brand-neutral training on critical skills for associates, managers and owners. Pet Store Pro is free to qualified retailers; visit to register and begin using the program.

This article was adapted from “Coaching & Motivating Employees,” one of 25 chapters available as part of Pet Store Pro’s online training. Lessons cover coaching techniques to build skills, clarify expectations, boost confidence, increase motivation, encourage flexibility and resolve conflict, as well as identifying employees’ coaching needs.

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