The Top 6 Ways Managers Demotivate Employees

An employee’s relationship with his or her manager is the single most important factor in how happy that employee is at work – which means that managers have a huge amount of sway over the mood on their team. Here are the top six ways that managers mess up and end up demotivating employees who might otherwise be more productive.

1. Fuzzy expectations. One of a manager’s most important jobs is to get employees aligned around clear goals and expectations. When that doesn’t happen, employees don’t have a clear understanding of what success in their jobs would look like – and it’s hard to excel when you’re not even sure what you should be excelling in.

2. Ruling by fear. Managers who rule through rigid control, negativity, and a climate of anxiety and fear generally operate like that because they don’t trust that they can get things done any other way. But it ends up backfiring because fearful employees won’t take risks or bring up new ideas for fear of being attacked and won’t be honest about problems. Moreover, very few great people with options want to work for a fear-based manager, so over time these managers have trouble attracting strong workers.

3. Not recognizing good work. Imagine spending weeks working on a project or working through the weekend to make a client happy and then see no signs that your boss noticed or cared. When that happens, employees often conclude that since great work isn’t recognized, there’s no point in putting in extra effort or doing more than the bare minimum – instant demotivation.

4. Making unreasonable demands. Holding employees to a high standard is a good thing. But some managers cross the line from holding people to a high standard to pushing them to the brink. Managers who insist that people work over the weekend to complete a project that isn’t time-sensitive, enforce truly unreasonable deadlines, or demand that an employee do the truly impossible are signaling to their staff that a reasonable person’s idea of excellence will never be enough for this manager … and as a result, cause a drop in morale and productivity.

5. Constantly moving goalposts. Some managers can’t stick to a decision about the most important ways for employees to spend their time. One week, you’re supposed to drop everything to work on Project A for the next month. Three days later, your boss has an idea for Project B and so Project A is forgotten. The next week, she wants all your energy focused on Project C. As a result, employees stop taking any of the work seriously, knowing from experience that there’s no point in giving it their all when the priorities will change soon anyway.

6. Neglecting to deal with problems. Some managers avoid conflict and tough conversations at all costs. This often takes the form of shying away from addressing performance problems, reluctance to make necessary course corrections to a project for fear of offending someone, or not intervening when another department is creating roadblocks. Ironically, while these managers are usually just trying to be liked, over time the opposite happens: As problems go unresolved and difficult decisions go unmade, staff members grow frustrated and lose motivation to work at a high level (and the best among them usually leave).

In what ways have you witnessed a manager demotivating employees?














Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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  • Richard

    This is really appropriate! Thank you.

    [Reply]

    Intuit QuickBase Reply:

    Hope it helps. Thank you for reading.

    [Reply]

  • blondechick80

    My boss consistently only shows up for work 15 mins a day. He walks in, checks in with a couple people and then walks out, and if you’re not there for that 15 mins you lose your chance to talk with him face-to-face. Then when he talks with us about our work he always says, “.. but we don’t to anything.” But we do, because I’m often very busy, but my workload varies by day and how close I am to deadline on the 15th. Granted the work we do is less than the amount we used to do, but “staffing” has decreased (I work at a research University where ‘staff’ were most commonly graduate students) and I have absorbed all of the work that was on the people who are no longer with us of the last few years.
    The most demotivating thing he does is criticize me for going on the internet when I need breaks (we don’t’ have a no internet rule) once in a while in an off comment fashion and THEN has the balls to tell me, “but we don’t do anything”… Well buddy just because YOU don’t do anything doesn’t mean WE don’t do things!! It’s irritating.

    [Reply]

    blondechick80 Reply:

    Also he’s a firm believer of rule number three. The only feedback you here is when something is wrong.

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    I wonder if you could start sending him regular reports on your priorities for the week (or two-week period, if you do it biweekly), to drive him the point that yes, in fact, you are doing a lot of work.

    [Reply]

    blondechick80 Reply:

    Once a month he and I take a 1.5 drive to a site where we do some field work for a few hours (one of the few days he puts in a full day). We talk about my stuff then, as we drive there. At least I use it as my “check in with the boss time”. A good portion of what I do is data entry and analysis which has a monthly deadline on the 15th, and normally doesn’t need his attention, but is something that does take some time, and I goes under his radar most of the time because it’s uneventful, and gets to the right person on time, and he doesn’t deal/work with it.

    There are weird dynamics here. One time, earlier this year he commented to me that he felt I did the most work out of all of us (I have 2 co workers besides him) and I was surprised by that. Flattered and also surprised. Positive remarks from him are next to zero, so I’ll take it. lol

    [Reply]

  • Vicki Brown

    Undermining the direct reports.

    I had a manager with whom I met. We outlined a strategy. I suggested a plan. He OK’s it.

    Then we had the department meeting. I brought up the plan and my manager acted surprised and said “Who thought of that? Whose idea was that? That’s not a good idea”.

    It didn’t happen twice. I didn;t work for him much longer.

    [Reply]

  • Maurice Brown

    Five words.
    Stack ranking and forced curves.

    That rating system has pushed out some of the smartest engineers I’ve ever met into the open arms of competitors who were more than happy to have them. It led to infighting and political smear campaigns so nasty you’d think there was a national healthcare system being debated. It also forced managers to intentionally alienate 80% of employees and alienating the remaining 20% from the other 80%.

    If you ever want to see the Red Wedding from ‘Game of Thrones’ reenacted implement stack ranking with forced curves.

    [Reply]

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  • Della Lai

    One of our project manager cried in front of me due heavy pressure on work. The demotivating thing is that her line boss is new for the processs and cannot stand on the same page with her when other peers challenge her.(The background was we launched one project for a long time and every colleagues worked very hard and contributed many efforts on that project. But after releasing, the users still found some bugs on the system or logic. As its impact was so significant, so users escalated this issue to her line boss. She was frustrated because she did see all of our efforts on that but unsatisfied results.)

    [Reply]

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