Few things are as costly and disruptive as managers who kill motivation.

It’s said that “people don’t leave jobs; they leave managers” and the stats back this up: 70% of an employee’s motivation is influenced by their manager, according to Gallup.

Research from the University of California found that motivated employees are 31% more productive, have 37% higher sales, and are three times more creative than demotivated employees.

They’re also 87% less likely to quit, according to a Corporate Leadership Council study. Meanwhile, disengaged employees underperform and will walk out the door at the first opportunity.

Unhappy employees corrode every organization’s success and profitability, and it’s bad managers who are most often to blame.  

This article invites you to hold a mirror to your leadership style and be honest: are you one of them?

You’re an overbearing control freak

You know everything: you know how to get things done and you get irritated if everyone doesn’t do it your way. You’re a perfectionist but, worse, you’re a micromanager.

This hurts rapport and team culture by sending the signal that you don’t trust them to do their jobs competently without you hovering over their shoulder and constantly checking every minor detail of their work.

Yes, your expertise and experience are what’s led you to a leadership role, but stifling your team’s autonomy by constantly questioning how they do things will damage their confidence and motivation - both to do their jobs and to being open and honest with you when they need to come to you for advice.

Most likely to say:

“Is it done yet?”

“Show me where you’re up to.’

“That’s not the way you should be doing it.”

Least likely to say:

“Fred at PurplePineapple is a funny guy, isn’t he? I remember talking to him one time at...” (opening up an opportunity for a conversation about how a relationship with a customer is progressing).

“Is there anything you need my help with? I’m conscious I’ve not checked in with you for a while.” (demonstrating that you’ve left a task or project in their hands, that you trust them, and giving them the chance to ask you for support, let you know about any difficulties they’re experiencing, or step in if they need you to).

How to turn things around

  • Focus on outcomes rather than processes. Make it clear what you expect your team to achieve, then let them decide how to go about making it happen, in a way that fits with their working style.
  • Effectively assigning tasks and establishing responsibilities from the beginning empowers your team to proactively manage their time and drive their own success, and helps you to resist the urge to micromanage.
  • Allow them enough time to make progress before checking in on them, but also balance this by encouraging them to approach you with any questions or support they need, when they need it.
  • Go for dialogue over dictation. Collaborating, really listening to your team’s input, fosters a positive, productive culture. And, who knows, they may actually have ideas on how to approach something better in a way - even you - haven’t thought of!
Collaborating, really listening to your team’s input, fosters a positive, productive culture

You don’t know your team

You’re dismissive of small talk, unapproachable and maybe even a little scary/intimidating. In your mind, work is for work and you’re not interested in their kids’ names, their jokes or that they’re in the middle of moving house.

Most likely to say:

“Yeah, we’ll pick that up in our next scheduled appraisal.”

“One day, we’ll go a whole hour without you talking about your cat.”

“Can you stop laughing and get on with what we’re actually here to do: work?”


Least likely to say;

“Hi Michelle, how are the kids?”

“Hey, did you catch the Lakers’ game at the weekend?”

“How’s your house move going?”

“See you at the company party this weekend!”

How to turn things around

  • Learn their natural communication preferences and styles. Some people might prefer to be emailed, others speak to you at your desk, others to catch-up more privately in a one-to-one situation. Some people value very concise, brief communication, others may be more open to chatting.
  • Acknowledging that not all of your team will receive and respond to feedback in the same way will allow you to give - and receive - feedback appropriately - and allow them to really engage with what you’re saying.
  • Regularly check in to see how they’re doing and connect on a personal (but not intrusive) level. Whether it’s chatting and laughing over coffee about a show you both like, or simply making an effort to say good morning as you pass their desk, it gives you a chance to get to know the way in which they’re most comfortable communicating, as well as to pick up on any cues that they’re becoming disengaged or demotivated and take steps to help them overcome barriers to success.
  • It’s not just about being fake, or ‘nice’ for the sake of it. It’s about building authentic human relationships which, in turn, strengthens communication on a professional level. For example, if you’re aware of any personal circumstances that are, or could, affect someone’s performance at work, you’re in a much stronger position to manage or head-off its impact.

People don’t know what you want from them

This is kind of linked to the point above and is underpinned not just by a lack of communication, but a lack of understanding of the need for communication and consistency.

Being vague about your expectations from your team does nobody any favors and causes all-round frustration and resentment.

Most likely to say:

“I expect results.” (without actually stating what they are).

“It’s in our mission statement/company handbook, didn’t you read it when you started?”

“We talked about this at our last team meeting.”

Least likely to say:

“Let me give you an example…”

“As a team, we need to set up 20 new meetings every month. What are your suggestions about how we achieve this?”

How to turn things around

  • Never assume that because you understand what your team has to achieve, it’s automatically as obvious to them as individuals.
  • Set and communicate desired outcomes clearly and break wider objectives into smaller, more attainable goals.
  • Reiterate clear goals and expectations as often as necessary, and be prepared to pivot as and when circumstances require it. If it’s clear that objectives set by the person or people that you answer to are unattainable, it’s your responsibility as a leader to ‘manage up’ and negotiate on behalf of your team.
  • In the same vein, make sure you have a full understanding of exactly what is expected from you and your team so you can lead them towards it.
  • Be consistent in the results you look for and in the behaviors you encourage. Moving the goalposts is not only frustrating for your team, but also profoundly disengaging; why should individuals feel motivated if they’re not sure that what they’re doing is going to be met with praise and recognition? If you need to adjust expectations, you need to explicitly acknowledge this and explain the reasons behind the change.
Set and communicate desired outcomes clearly and break wider objectives into smaller, more attainable goals

You demand respect, but don’t earn it

I once had a manager who gave me and two of my colleagues a dressing down because our laughter coming from a meeting room was “causing a distraction” to the people in the open-plan office. This was irritating, first, because our joy was due to the fact that we were actually having a really productive session, inspiring one another and coming up with some innovative ideas. But, hey, fair enough if we were affecting others’ concentration.

But secondly, and worst of all, was that minutes after sticking his head around the door to admonish us, he began to kick a football around said open office with one of his buddies in engineering. Total hypocrisy and an almost perfect illustration that respect and trust are earned and can’t be won with intimidation or the expectation that you automatically deserve it “because you’re the boss”.

Assertiveness is not the same as arrogance and certainly not synonymous with aggressiveness or fear. (My two colleagues and I left for other roles not too long after this incident).

Most likely to say:

“Just do it!”

“Remember who you’re talking to.”

Least likely to say:


“Well done - good job!”

How to turn things around

  • Empower your team to perform to their best ability by offering encouragement and support and celebrating achievements. Send the message that they are appreciated, not just by the company, but you as an individual. Never underestimate the power of positive reinforcement for motivating and fostering respect, as opposed to leaping on others’ faults. And never try to take credit for someone else’s idea or accomplishment; in fact, you should make a conscious effort to be vocal about the part individuals have played in your team’s success, even if you privately feel it was driven by you.
  • Lead by example; it’s a cliché because it’s true. Here’s another one: “show, don’t tell”. Your job is to inspire your team by your own actions, not cause resentment by saying one thing and doing another. If you don’t honor your commitments, why should they?
  • Don’t play favorites. Yes, you might have developed a close outside-of-work friendship with Sue from your team, but if you constantly gossip together in the corner, or cover up for her mistakes while calling out other team members for the same thing, it’s going to cause resentment and division within your team.
  • To sum up the points above, it’s your responsibility as a leader to be self-aware and recognize the impact of your words and actions on the people that look to you for guidance.

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