3 Ways You’re Killing Employee Motivation — and How to Stop

Article main image
Oct 21, 2014

Employers are always looking for ways to boost employee engagement and get the best out of their people.

But even as they do, many are inadvertently causing their workers to disengage. Could you be one of them?

Are you guilty of any of these common motivation killers?

1. Pretending to listen

I’ve never met an employee who’s said “I really love taking employee surveys!” or “My employer really gets the employee survey process right!”

Yet, people say they want to be heard. In theory, surveys should facilitate that process. What’s going wrong?

What most employers don’t realize is that when they ask for employee feedback, they’re starting a conversation, and, like in any conversation, there’s an expectation they will listen and engage in a back-and-forth exchange of information. Instead of making employee feedback a springboard for dialogue, they’ll just publish it in a report months later — or worse, put it away and never speak of it again.

When people invest their time and effort in offering feedback, then don’t hear back for months — if ever — they’re left with the impression no one is listening. It’s disheartening to feel like no one is hearing your voice — especially after they specifically asked you to speak up.

What to do instead: I sympathize with employers — especially the large ones. How can you show you’re really listening to hundreds or thousands of employees? It’s really hard.

But if you want to motivate your employees, you need to shrink the length of time between requesting feedback and doing something with it. Report your findings promptly, and let people know what actions you’re going to take based on what you’ve discovered.

2. Hiding from the truth

Another reason employers fail in handling employee feedback is they can’t handle anything negative.

When employees offer constructive feedback or surveys reveal real problems in the organization, employers may tend to sweep that information under the rug and not do anything about it. This shows they’re not only not listening, but they’re actively ignoring employees concerns and problems.

What to do instead: If you went to the doctor for a check-up and found out you had cancer, you wouldn’t sit on the test results for months or walk away and pretend you’d never seen them. You also wouldn’t spend time patting yourself on the back over your doctor’s finding that your heart was healthy. You’d focus on the cancer and start working on treating it right away.

Employers need to stop being scared of their data. When they receive negative feedback and constructive criticism, they should get right to work examining what’s wrong and what steps they need to take to make it right.

3. Operating in secret

For years it’s been standard for employers to keep salaries, sales numbers and other key statistics a secret shared only by board members, senior leaders and anyone government regulators required them to inform.

The problem with this is that secrets erode trust — the foundation of great teams and teamwork. When employees don’t feel trusted and don’t have every reason to trust their employers, they’re less engaged and less motivated to do their best.

What to do instead: Recognize that transparency builds trust, trust supports teams, and great teams — not great individuals — build successful organizations. Make transparency your default.

Many new organizations are starting to do this. For example, Buffer, a company I respect a lot, publishes every employee’s salary from the CEO down and includes details about its pay structure and the rationale for the way it’s set it up. Buffer is also completely open about its revenue, paying customers and other metrics.

When employees aren’t engaged at work, they don’t give their employers their best. If you want your employees’ best, you need to make sure you’re not inadvertently killing their motivation to give it to you.

Being the sort of organization that kills employees’ motivation is not good for your employer brand either, and can make it harder for you to attract and retain great people.

That may not have been a major concern in recent years with the economic downturn and slow recovery, but the jobs market is heating up again and with it competition for the best, most motivated employees.