Top 10 Ways to Motivate Your Soldiers: Dealing with Disgruntled Soldiers

In today’s post we are going to discuss how to motivate your Soldiers effectively. These tips are designed for leaders at ALL levels in the military, from the small unit leader to the Commanding General. I will share some of my best tips on how to keep Soldiers motivated, even during high-stress situations.

What is Motivation?

Let’s start by taking a moment to define motivation. Here’s what I found online:

Motivation is the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviors. It is what causes you to act, whether it is getting a glass of water to reduce thirst or reading a book to gain knowledge. Motivation involves the biological, emotional, social, and cognitive forces that activate behavior. In everyday usage, the term “motivation” is frequently used to describe why a person does something. It is the driving force behind human actions. ~ Very Well Mind

In my own words, motivation is getting someone else to do something you want them to do, not through brute force, but through inspiration and personal example. 

Reasons Your Soldiers Are Unmotivated

Here are a few of the most common reasons your Soldiers might be unmotivated:

Poor Unit Leadership

If your Soldiers do not have confidence, or respect, for the chain of command, or any part of it, motivation will be low. Soldiers must be able to rely on their leaders to have their interests at heart. It’s true, one bad leader can ruin an entire unit of good Soldiers.

Standards Not Enforced, or Not Enforced Equally

Any unit in the military with low standards will have lots of unmotivated Soldiers in it. Soldiers want discipline. They want their leaders to enforce the Army standards fairly, and equally.

Unclear Expectations

If Soldiers don’t know the commander’s intent, the mission, or what is expected of them, they will naturally be unmotivated (and rightfully so).

Lack of Communication

Lack of, or poor communication will lead to low morale. Leaders must communicate effectively and communication must flow up and down the chain of command with ease.

Life Issues

Sometimes a Soldiers will be unmotivated at work because of different life issues. Perhaps they are experiencing medical problems, financial problems, or problems at home with their family.

Bad Supervisor

Your direct, first line supervisor has more effect on your motivation than any other person in the military. Bad supervisors destroy motivation in their sections, and ultimately in the unit.

If you notice motivation is low in your unit, you should start by evaluating your unit in each of these areas listed above to see if it is a systematic problem.

how to motivate your soldiers

How to Motivate Your Soldiers

Here are my best tips on how to motivate your Soldiers. 

# 1: Reward Good Behavior & Punish Poor Behavior

As a leader, you must do BOTH of these activities. When Soldiers meet or exceed the standards, they need to be praised and rewarded. On the other hand, when they fail to meet the standards, they need to be punished, reprimanded, counseled, and developed. Most leaders forget to reward good behavior and focus their time and energy on punishing poor performing Soldiers. If you follow that strategy, you will fail miserably as a leader.

When you give your poor performing Soldiers 100 percent of your attention, you neglect your superstars and high performing Soldiers. Many of these “high caliber” Soldiers will wonder WHY they NEVER get noticed or rewarded for going above and beyond what is expected of them. As a result, morale declines and many of these Soldiers will eventually leave the military. Even worse, they might end up MODELING your behavior and do the same things when they become leaders.

My best advice to you is to spend as much time rewarding good behavior as you do punishing poor performance.

# 2: Teach Soldiers the Big Picture

Everyone I’ve ever met in the Army likes to know how their job (or mission) falls into the big picture. Let’s face it, we all want to feel important and feel like we are contributing to something greater than ourselves. As leaders, we must sit down with our followers whenever possible and explain the big picture to them.

In the Army, we normally have a TASK and PURPOSE in all mission orders. This tells us what we must do and why we must do it. Don’t make the mistake of always explaining why by saying “because I told you so.” That statement is very ineffective and destroys morale in the process. Once in a while you might need to do that, but don’t make it a habit.

Let me give you an example of how you could explain the big picture to your Soldier whenever you give them an assignment. Let’s suppose you tell SPC Smith and PFC Edwards to clean the latrine. You should also tell them they need to clean the latrine because the Battalion Commander will inspect the armory at 1600 hours and the latrine is in bad shape right now.

This might not make your Soldiers EXCITED to do their mission, but at least they know WHY they are doing it. I hope that makes sense.

# 3: Say Thank You Whenever Possible

Saying thank you has huge, positive effects with Soldier morale and performance. You should make it a point to say thank you at least three to five times per day to people who help you. Not only is it good manners, but it makes people happy to hear thank you. It shows that you appreciate what the other person is doing and that you notice their efforts.

By no means do you need to overdo it and say thank you hundreds of time to the same person each day. But make sure that you do it often. It shows that you are a professional and have good manners. Besides, so many people DON’T do it, you will get noticed when you say those two big words: thank you.

# 4: Be a Coach, Not a Dictator

Nobody likes a dictator. I know the Army is not a democracy. I understand that. But that doesn’t mean you need to be a dictator either. The best and most effective military leaders are more like a team captain than a dictator. They lead by inspiring others and empowering them, not just by telling them what to do.

Sometimes, you must roll up your sleeves and work with your Soldiers. That way, they can see you working. Also, it’s better to say “follow me” than go out and say “go get it done.” Soldiers will respect you more for this and it will improve morale too.

# 5: Get To Know Your Soldiers as People

You need to get to know your Soldiers as people. That doesn’t mean you need to become buddy-buddy and be on a first name basis, but you do need to know a little bit about them. You should show an interest in their hobbies, their goals, their family, their interests, and more. You should ask them questions about these things so they know that you care about them as a person too, not just a Soldier.

No one wants to feel like a number. People want to know that you care about them and their well being. Remember, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

# 6: Set a Good Example

As leaders, our Soldiers are always watching us. We must make sure we are always setting a good example. This means we need to look and act like a leader. We need to be professional. We need to do what we say and say what we do. Don’t ask your Soldiers to do something and you go out and do the complete opposite. Hold yourself to a higher standard than you hold everyone else to.

People want to follow a strong leader. No one wants to follow a hypocrite, or someone who doesn’t hold themselves accountable to same standards they try to enforce on others.

# 7: Help Them Advance Their Career

Your primary job as a leader is to DEVELOP your people. You need to help your Soldiers advance their career. You can do this through effective counseling and goal setting. You should sit down with your Soldiers one-on-one and find out what their personal and career goals are. Once you learn this information, you should help them create an action plan to reach their goals.

You should teach your Soldiers EXACTLY what they need to do to get promoted to the next rank. Tell them what schools they need, when they need them, when they will be eligible for promotion, and what they can do to separate themselves from their peers.

Even if it means you lose one of your superstar Soldiers for a promotion to a new unit, that’s okay. Your job is to help everyone be the best they can be, even if it affects you negatively.

If you don’t know much about goal setting, go to the library or local bookstore and read a couple of books about the topic. The information you learn will benefit you immensely.

general patton quote about dying for your country

# 8: Allow Two-Way Communication

Communication should always flow up and down your organization. If your Soldiers aren’t bringing their problems to you, it’s because they don’t trust you or respect you as their leader. You need to make sure that the door is always open for your Soldiers to approach you.

Make sure you don’t chastise or blackball your Soldiers for bringing a problem to you, even if their problem is with you! Good leaders always lend a listening ear to the people they lead.

When you get information, don’t hoard it (unless you can’t share it). Let your Soldiers know what is going on when you find out. Shared information is power. When you communicate effectively and communicate often, the rumors will die, morale with improve, and your Soldiers will respect you.

# 9: Set High Standards & Be Disciplined

All Soldiers want to belong to a unit with high standards and discipline. No one joins the Army because they want to serve in a slacker unit with low standards. As a leader, you must set high standards for yourself and everyone you lead. Also, maintain a high level of discipline in your unit. This goes a long way to help Soldier motivation.

People want to be part of an undefeated, state championship team, not a winless junior varsity squad. Never forget that. Create a winning environment that challenges people, that people want to belong to, and that people are expected to perform at a high level. This will help the motivation soar! Remember, people rise to the level of expectations that you place on them.

# 10: Have Fun at Work

I understand the Army has an important mission to fight and win the nation’s land wars. While being serious is important, it’s also important to be able to laugh at yourself and have fun at work once in a while. No one wants to work for a sourpuss. No one wants to be in an organization where you can never laugh or have a little bit of fun.

Your job as a leader is to get the job done first! But if you can do that well, you should also schedule some fun activities such as a family day, a Commander’s Cup Challenge, a historical site visit, or something that mixes things up from time to time.

While I was a Company Commander, we had a Ricky Chicken Award. Ricky was a purple rubber chicken. At the end of every drill weekend, people would nominate other people for the Ricky Chicken Award. Whoever did or said the dumbest thing during drill weekend would get nominated. Once we had a few nominations, our Soldiers voted on who they wanted to receive the award. Whoever “won” the award would come to the front of formation and “pass the chicken.”

This had a huge impact on morale. Soldiers looked forward to this award ceremony every drill weekend. I’ve been out of command three years now and my old unit still does the Ricky Chicken Award. That speaks volumes!

Motivating & Dealing with Disgruntled Soldiers

At some point, as you try to motivate your Soldiers, you will stumble across disgruntled Soldiers. These are Soldiers who have been unmotivated for a long time, normally because of a variety of issues I mentioned at the beginning of this article. If you supervise one of these disgruntled Soldiers, you have a few options.

# 1: Find Out Why They Are Disgruntled

The easiest thing to do is ask the Soldier (in private) WHY they are disgruntled. Have a man to man, or leader to Soldier chat. Address the issues. There’s a good chance they will tell you what is wrong. The situation might be easy for you to fix or send up the chain of command and get fixed. It might be challenging. If the Soldier is decent, or was at one point in the past, it’s worth salvaging them (or at least trying too). Do what you can to fix the problem.

# 2: Try to See Things From Their Perspective

It’s easy to judge others. Before you are quick to form an opinion about your disgruntled Soldier or their situation, try to think of things from their perspective. You never know what someone is going through until you see things from their perspective, or have walked a mile in their shoes. Ask yourself: “what would I do or what would I be thinking if I was Private Snuffy?” This will give you a reality check and help you be objective.

# 3: Make Them Feel Appreciated

One of the greatest reasons that people feel disgruntled at work, in life, or in the military is because they don’t feel appreciated. They feel that no one values their contributions to the organization. As a leader, you can help change that. Consider putting the Soldier in for an award (if they are worthy). Tell them you appreciate them by writing them a thank you note. Sit down with them at lunch during drill weekend and talk to them. Find a creative way to recognize them in front of their peers. Help them get promoted or find a school they want/need. It’s true, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

# 4: Transfer Them to a New Unit or Section

To clarify, I am not telling you to pass off your “problem Soldier” to someone else. That sucks!

However, before you separate a Soldier from the service, you should consider this. Sometimes a Soldier is unhappy with the unit, section, or even their MOS. If that is the case, and you’ve tried to remedy the situation doing other things, I recommend you transfer the Soldier to another section or unit.

Maybe they are unhappy with the unit or chain of command and want a second chance somewhere else. Maybe they’re tired of their MOS. Assuming they aren’t a dirt bag Soldier, I would rather transfer them to a different unit than have them ETS and leave the military. Uncle Same has LOTS of money invested in each Soldier. If you can salvage them with this simple fix, do it!

I’ve met several Soldiers who transferred to a new unit, got a new beginning, and excelled in their new unit.

# 5: Realize that Some People Are Naturally Unhappy

You might not realize this yet, but some people are ALWAYS miserable, disgruntled, or unhappy with life. Some folks are naturally depressed, have a bad attitude, or simply can’t find happiness. If your Soldier is one of those folks, get them help, such as a mental health evaluation, have them chat with the Chaplain, and worst case scenario, separate them from the military.

One Final Tip

In closing, I’d like to share a valuable piece of advice I learned from one of my military mentors about unmotivated and disgruntled Soldiers. In a nutshell, this is what he told me (paraphrased):

Your unmotivated Soldiers are a REFLECTION of the unit’s leadership. If everyone is unmotivated or unhappy, it’s a leadership problem, not a Soldier problem. Also, unmotivated and bad Soldiers are your BEST source of knowledge to improve your leadership effectiveness.

By keeping an open mind, you can learn a lot from these unmotivated Soldiers about things you are doing wrong, neglecting, or overlooking in your unit. Do what you can to learn from these Soldiers, so you can be a better military leader and 10x your effectiveness.

Final Thoughts

In review, there are many different ways to motivate your Soldiers. As a military leader, you are responsible for the morale, motivation, and esprit de corps in your unit. You set the tone. If motivation sucks, it is a reflection of your leadership. If motivation is high, it is a reflection of your leadership.

Some of my best tips to motivate your Soldiers are to reward good behavior and punish poor behavior, to teach Soldiers the big picture, to say thank you as much as possible, to be a coach not a dictator, to get to know your Soldiers as people, to set a good example, to help your Soldiers advance their career, to allow two-way communication, to set high standards, and to have fun at work! If you can do these things effectively, you will see the “motivation” in your unit skyrocket!

Do you have any other suggestions or tips about how to motivate your Soldiers? Do you have any questions? If so, post them below in the comment section. Thank you.

If you’re looking to motivate your Soldiers, here are a few suggested books I highly recommend. The first one is Small Unit Leadership by Dan Malone. This book is a masterpiece for any small unit leader in the military. The second book is 100 Ways to Motivate Others, another great book. The final book I suggest is Whatever It Takes. You can click on any of those links to learn more about the book on Amazon.

Other Must Read Blog Posts:
  1. How to Increase Soldier Morale
  2. Leadership & Followership
  3. How to Network in the Military
  4. Military Career Tips
  5. Military Drill Weekend Info
chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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18 thoughts on “Top 10 Ways to Motivate Your Soldiers: Dealing with Disgruntled Soldiers”

  1. All these tips are important, but I think #2 and #3 weigh pretty heavy.

    I am speaking from my own experience. I like to know the big picture and have it verbalized at times.

    In the service, and I’m prior service, you don’t work for money. That is part of the big picture. You do what you do for a bigger cause when you serve your country.

    When you have done your job and done it well, there are times that some form of a simple thank you goes a long way. It can be a simple pat on the back or a head nod with eye to eye contact.

    I never minded an objective “let’s do it better”. You can always improve over yesterday. But the positives of today also need to be pointed out.

  2. These are all good tips but for me, also, number six stands out the most. It is difficult to expect your soldiers, or any subordinates, to behave well if you are not. You might speak, think and behave however you wish in total privacy, but whatever you do as a leader will become an example of what is acceptable to all of those who look up to or report to you.

  3. I want to commend you on this post. These are some great tips on motivation that every leader should see. To me #6 is probably the most important. Our subordinates are watching and will do what we do. If we set a bad example, we are providing them the freedom to do the same bad things. I am also a huge fan of the have fun at work tip. So many leaders assume that work should always be serious and drab. A little fun can go a long ways.

  4. Kelvin, making things happen is an important way to motivate your soldiers. Such a skill gets positive attention. Charles, another thing about focusing only on the low performers and sometimes high performers is that the ones in the middle will continue to be business as usual, mediocre and average. They need to be motivated, too. The company commander or other leader needs to communicate to all levels of soldiers in the job. Plus, we all take turns performing low, medium and high in quality in our job, whether the leader of the team member.

    1. The real key is to find motivated people and hire them. Unfortunately, we don’t have that choice in the Army. At the end of the day, you have to figure out what motivates each person and use that thing to motivate them.

  5. This is one of my biggest weaknesses, motivating others. I am never a speaker, nor am I the biggest stud that can inspire my soldiers. One thing I know I did really well while I was a platoon leader is making things happen. What I mean is that soldiers in my platoon are actually getting promoted (5/16), go to school (5/16) and top platoon to get things done (admin, medical and training). All these sound basic and simple but prior to my arrival my platoon has been known as the ‘last minute platoon’ by the AGR and 1SG; few to no promotion in the platoon, only 3 NCOs running it. My final accomplishment is fixing a soldier’s flag that has been in his file for 4.5 years, which only took me 1.5 years. This accomplishment motivated the soldier, especially he has been a PV1 for 4.5 years.

    1. It sounds like you did some great things as a Platoon Leader, Kelvin. As the leader, you don’t have to be a good speaker or stud on PT, weapons qual, etc. You just have to show up, lead by example and show your followers that you care. If you can do that, you will accomplish great things in any duty position.

  6. Neil O'Donnell

    One of the ways I found to be an effective motivator is to let those in my charge to know of my struggles and past failures. Reminding subordinates you are “human” will help them conquer obstacles and let them see you as trustworthy, as someone they will seek the approval of. Saying thank you, as you suggest, is also one of the best ways to motivate. The amount of motivation created by saying “thank you” is immeasurable.

    1. This is a great way to connect with your followers, Neil. I did the same thing. We’ve all made mistakes. We’re all human beings. None of us are perfect. When you let your Soldiers know a few mistakes you made in the past, they will relate to you better and respect you more.

  7. It’s really neat to read these tips and be able to relate them to how I am as an educator. When I was teaching, there was never just one side. Discipline and punishment for bad behavior and rewards and praise for good behavior. And if I didn’t lead by example, I would’ve been able to count on disorder in the classroom!

    1. You sound like a good teacher, Lauren. Rewarding good behavior is just as important as punishing poor behavior. If you only do one of those two things you won’t get anywhere near the results you would if you did both.

      Thanks for the comment.

      1. Charles,
        This was a great read. I will put this into practice as I am a new 1SG, stationed at FT. DRUM, NY. I am currently assessing the Soldiers, moral and disciple of the unit and have come to the decision that “assessing time is over”, it is time to Lead the unit to be the best it can be and show this Young generation of Soldiers that they are valuable and cared for, which I feel will lead to their trust in their Leadership. It will also lead to Soldiers taking Pride in their organization, We Depoly soon. Once again, thank you for this post.

  8. I am the type of person who follows by example, so for me it would be crucial that whoever is leading me act the same way I would in certain instances. I don’t want to follow someone who isn’t truly fit to lead.

    1. Unfortunately, no two people act the same way in a given situation. Good leaders are their best when the pressure is on. They set a strong personal example for their followers and they encourage their followers.

      Thanks for the comment, Kevin.


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