Four Manager Mistakes That Destroy Employee Motivation

Four Manager Mistakes That Destroy Employee Motivation

By Scott Drake, Founder
6 minute read

A recent Gallup study found that only 34% of North American workers are engaged, and globally that number is only 20%.

Think about that.

Only one in three employees show up at work excited to be there and consistently bring their best effort.

Only one in three employees go the extra mile to take care of customers and work hard to be a great teammate.

It's no surprise that improving employee engagement is a high priority for many organizational leaders. They know that organizations with employee engagement problems:

  • Are less likely to achieve critical organizational goals.
  • Are harder to manage, operate, and scale.
  • Are less innovative because people don't contribute their best thinking.
  • Struggle to attract and retain top employees.
  • Suffer from morale or culture issues.

Here's the hard truth. Employee engagement is manager problem, not an employee problem.

The way many managers lead is demotivating and causes disengagement.

Most managers don't do this on purpose. They just don't understand what creates motivation or the impact their behavior is having on others.

In our work with leaders and organizations, we see four common manager mistakes that cause the bulk of these engagement issues.

When managers correct these mistakes, employee engagement can sky-rocket. Organizations can go from having big problems to having a thriving and engaged workforce.

Let's explore these mistakes.

Mistake 1: Hiring Only for Skills and Extrinsic Motivators

Savvy managers hire for four factors:

  1. Skills: Does the person have the core skills or aptitude to do the work?
  2. Extrinsic Motivators: Are the pay, benefits, perks, location, and working conditions acceptable?
  3. Team and Organizational Fit: Will the person work well with other team members and management?
  4. Intrinsic Motivators: Will someone enjoy the work and find it personally satisfying?

Many managers hire only for the first two. They think about the skills, experience, and education a successful candidate must have and the pay and perks that will entice someone to join the organization.

More sophisticated managers also hire for Team and Organizational Fit. They have defined permission-to-play values, differentiating values, and a code of conduct to which all team members happily adhere. Instead of hiring bad fits and hoping to coach out unwanted behaviors, they have learned to hire for desired behaviors.

The most advanced managers also hire for Intrinsic Motivators, which author Daniel Pink defines as Purpose, Growth, and Autonomy.

  • Purpose: People want to feel a sense of purpose in their work, that they are part of a bigger mission doing something more than increasing revenue and earning a paycheck.
  • Growth: People want to grow and become better next month than they are today.
  • Autonomy: People want a sense of freedom and control of their work.

Savvy managers hire people who are aligned with the Intrinsic Motivators the organization can provide and then build these into all aspects of their team's work.

When you think about hiring, are you taking into account all four factors? If not, you're damaging your engagement.


  • Hire for Intrinsic Motivators and Fit as much as Skills and Extrinsic Motivators.
  • Intrinsic Motivators are Purpose, Growth, and Autonomy.
  • Re-hire your team regularly to keep them challenged and growing.

Mistake 2: Managing All Work for Efficiency

The work in modern organizations takes two forms.

The first is routine work, where the goals are "consistency and efficiency." Think about a fast-food restaurant that has processes and procedures for everything. Because the work is routine, managers design systems, train employees, and leave few decisions to the frontline workers. Routine work requires a mechanistic approach to management.

The second is creative work, where the goal is "innovative solutions for unique problems." Think about the teams that create those fast-food systems, solve irregular or one-off problems, or tackle special projects. For this type of work, the return-on-investment for complex systems isn't good or efficient systems may be impossible. Creative work requires an organic approach to management.

During the Industrial Revolution, many employees played vital roles in routine work like manufacturing and distribution, and leaders learned to think about management through the lens of consistency and efficiency.

In today's world, robots, software, and other systems perform a large percentage of that routine work, and more of people's work is the irregular and creative work that systems can't handle. This shift means that more work done by people needs an organic approach, and the management lens of consistency and efficiency is counterproductive and can damage engagement.

Too many managers don't understand these two approaches or know how to flex between them as needed.

Ask yourself: What types of work in your organization are routine and benefit from a mechanistic approach, and what are creative and benefit from organic techniques? Are you and your management team flexing when needed?


  • Efficiency is not the right goal for all work, and the common mechanistic approach to management can cause disengagement when applied to the wrong work.
  • Managers should treat routine work in mechanistic ways and creative work in organic ways.
  • Review the work of your team or organization and decide what work is routine and what is creative.
  • Work with your team to create processes and training for the routine work.
  • Work with your team to adopt organic management approaches for creative work.

Mistake 3: Failing in the Moments That Matter

Leadership happens in small interactions between two or more people.

When these interactions go well, employees walk away with clarity, increased motivation, and a desire to give their best effort to help the leader.

But too often, those interactions don't go well, and the leader may not realize they confused or demotivated the employee.

Think about past managers with whom you've struggled. What was the problem? What were they doing that you found challenging? Was it something big, or did they handle any of these small interactions poorly?

Interaction 1: When you ask an employee for help ...

Motivation Builders

  • Challenge them to solve a problem
  • Share a clear vision and success criteria
  • Describe how problems or tasks help customers or the organization

Motivation Destroyers

  • Tell them exactly what to do
  • Not supplying context

Interaction 2: When an employee asks you for help solving a problem ...

Motivation Builders

  • Walk them through a process to clear the roadblock
  • Let them get the win of solving the problem

Motivation Destroyers

  • Give them the answer
  • Lose patience when "they don't get it"

Interaction 3: When an employee shares an idea or possible solution to a problem ...

Motivation Builders

  • Ask for clarity on the problem, success criteria
  • Ask how they arrived at the idea

Motivation Destroyers

  • State all the problems you see
  • Tell them "it won't work"

How are you responding in these small moments of interaction? How are the other leaders in your organization?


  • Leadership happens in small moments of interaction between people, and great leaders ensure people get what they need and nothing they don't need.
  • When you ask someone for help, as much as possible, be a challenger and delegate problems instead of tasks.
  • When coaching problem solving, help people remove the immediate roadblock and give the problem back to them.
  • When someone shares an idea, know that your brain will see all the problems, so respond with curiosity instead of stating those problems.

Mistake 4: Leaders with Different Standards

Here's a research project to undertake.

As you interact with other managers in your organization, ask them the question: "How do you know you're doing a great job as a leader?"

There's a good chance you'll see some head-scratching and hear many different answers. Most managers don't have a clear idea of what the job entails.

Here's a short answer.

Leadership is "working through others to get things done." There are things you need to be done, but you can't or don't want to do them yourself, so you choose to work through others.

You'll know you're doing a great job as a leader if you achieve your goals in these four, sometimes conflicting areas:

  1. Get Results: The team exists to get something done, and it's getting done.
  2. Engaged Team: The team is healthy and motivated, and the drive for results is sustainable.
  3. Enthusiastic Customers: Customers or stakeholders view you as an irreplaceable resource.
  4. Grow More Leaders: You are growing your team and building a bench that will take your organization to the next level.

These goals are sometimes conflicting. For example:

  • To take care of a customer, a leader may choose to sacrifice results, or ask a team to work overtime, or pull back on training.
  • To help the team grow and build capability for long-term results, a leader may sacrifice short-term results.
  • A production team of unskilled workers doing routine work may prioritize results over employee engagement.
  • An engineering team doing creative work may prioritize engagement higher to remain competitive in the labor marketplace.

A common mistake that destroys motivation is a leadership team that does not understand this balancing act of sometimes conflicting goals. It's also common to see leaders in the same team strive for a different level of engagement versus results.

Are all your managers on the same page?


  • Leadership is a balancing act of four conflicting goals: Results, Employee Engagement, Customer Enthusiasm, and Growing More Leaders.
  • Organizations or teams can choose a different balance, but none can be ignored.
  • A team will struggle to be effective if they are ignoring areas or balancing them differently.
  • One well-intentioned leader making simple mistakes can undo the work of all other leaders.

Here's a recap.

Employee engagement problems are often caused by managers making honest mistakes.

The four most common manager mistakes that lead to disengagement are:

  • Hiring only for skills and extrinsic motivators, and not hiring for team and organizational fit and intrinsic motivators.
  • Managing all work for efficiency and consistency, even when creativity and innovation are the goals.
  • Responding in demotivating ways in key moments that matter including delegation, coaching problem solving, and when an idea is shared.
  • Managers not working towards the same standards, from the same playbook, or in complimentary ways.

Who do you know that needs this?