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Motivation Mistakes Inexperienced Leaders Make and How to Avoid Making Them

Russell Meyer


Motivating each employee is a critical ongoing task for a leader. An inexperienced leader often makes mistakes that can actually lead to de-motivating the employee and even the entire department. This paper will examine some common motivation mistakes made by inexperienced leaders and how to avoid them.

What is motivation and how does it work?
Motivation is the combination of a person's desire and energy which is directed at achieving a goal. It is a cause of action.[1] Motivation can be intrinsic (satisfaction, feeling of achievement) or extrinsic (reward, punishment, or goal obtainment).

Motivating an employee is one of the more difficult tasks for a leader since what motivates one employee may not motivate another, and over time, even those motivations evolve.[2] A young employee is not always motivated by the same things that an older employee might be. A parent may be motivated by extra time off with his or her children; an employee without children may instead appreciate a financial reward. Men and women differ in their motivation as well. Research at Ohio State University suggests there maybe 16 basic desires that guide motivation.[3] A good leader must take the time to learn what motivates each of his employees in order to make that employee the most effective.

The Evolution of Motivation and Money
Money is no longer seen as the only component of motivation but inexperienced and untrained leaders still fall into that trap. As society has progressed, views on motivation have changed.

Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management in 1911 concluded that workers were motivated mainly by money and recommended the piece-rate system [4]. In 1943, the Maslow theory [5] proposed that people were motivated by a hierarchy of needs but once those needs were met, they no longer influenced behavior. Maslow also stated that a leader who assumed that financial motivation would always be the employee’s greatest need, would become less and less effective because that leader would fail to recognize the ongoing changes as the employee progressed.

By 1959, Herzberg's theory [6] of motivation concluded that such things as money, working conditions, company policies, supervision, and interpersonal relations were factors rather than motivators. According to his theory, the absence of some of these factors did have the potential to create job dissatisfaction, but their presence did not necessarily guarantee worker motivation.

Over the last 30 years, research theories have migrated from external rewards (pay, bonus, promotion) to internal rewards (self satisfaction, drive, responsibility) through such theories as: Self-Determination by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan,[7] and McClelland's Needs.[8]

An inexperienced leader might see money as the sole solution to motivating the employee. A good leader will recognize that money which will always be a major part of the picture, will only bring short-term results if it is the only consideration. [9]

Can a non-motivated leader motivate others?

A leader should lead by example. An inexperienced leader will sometimes forget this. A leader must be conscientious and enthusiastic about his job, his tasks and his company if he expects to motivate the employee.

Motivational talks from an insincere leader will fall on deaf ears. If the leader talks about working hard and staying late to finish the job but lacks the discipline to do so himself, he can expect that his example will speak louder than his words. If the leader does not meet his own deadlines or summons his employee to complete projects that he, the leader, was supposed to be working on, the employee will not be inclined to finish his own tasks. The employee will lose his own motivation which will have a de-motivating effect on the rest of the employees.

If a leader is motivated and he is enthusiastic about his work, the employee will be more likely to be motivated as well.

Communication and Motivation

An inexperienced leader often fails to realize the impact of his words. Truthful communication is critical for motivation. If a leader routinely claims that the company’s employees are "our greatest asset " then announces layoffs, the employee will see this leader as less than truthful. The leader needs to ensure the message he is sending matches his actions. The employee needs to know what is going on (to the degree possible) and how his contribution is going to help achieve the goals of the organization.

A good leader keeps promises. If a leader tells an employee that he will be considered for a bonus if the task is completed on time or productivity increases, that leader should be prepared to follow through with the promise. Failure to follow through on that promise will result in a loss of trust with every employee that hears the story. A leader needs to honor his promises if he expects his employee to trust him.

Communication is a two-way street. Involve the employee in the decision making process. If the employee is involved, he will be motivated to take ownership of his work and projects. A good leader will listen to what his employee has to say about the work and incorporate his input into the work and projects.

If the employee does not know what or how a goal is to be completed, the employee will have a difficult time achieving the goal. If the company goals are not clear, the leader has failed to communicate. As Ferinand Fournies pointed out in his book Why Employees Don’t Do What They’re Supposed to Do and What to Do About It, one reason the employee doesn’t do what he is supposed to do, is that he simply doesn’t know what he is supposed to do.[10]

The leader plays the essential role and must clearly communicate to the employee. Consistent feedback is needed if the employee does not seem to be achieving the task. A good leader will recognize that feedback should not be a once-a-year review event.

Stop De-motivating

The authors of the 2006 Harvard Management Update article, Why Your Employees Are Losing Motivation, state that the solution to the problem is not motivating the employee more. The solution is to stop de-motivating that employee.

"The great majority of employees are quite enthusiastic when they start a new job. But in about 85 percent of companies ... employees' morale sharply declines after their first six months - and continues to deteriorate for years afterward".[11]

The article blames inexperienced leadership, poor employee recognition and management roadblocks as the primary culprits in de-motivating the employee. These roadblocks include excessive paperwork and approvals, lack of training and poor delegation of authority. If the task requires the employee to jump through too many ‘hoops’ just to complete the task, the employee will either ignore the hoops or just not complete the task. A good leader needs to make the employee’s job as simple and clear-cut as possible. He will work to determine what obstacles stand in the way of the employee’s completion of tasks and he will strive to remove those obstacles

Motivation Backlash

An inexperienced leader may fail to recognize that today’s employee is more sophisticated and cynical towards simplistic motivational attempts. Take, for example, the rise in the popularity of motivational posters. These posters are intended to inspire workers with inspirational messages such as "The customer is why we're here". These posters can backfire if the employee realizes the poster sends one message but the company’s leader sends a different message.

There has been a backlash with the advent of de-motivational posters from Despair.[12] The "de-motivated" employee can purchase posters, mugs and calendars with such messages as "Motivation - If a pretty poster and a cute saying are all it takes to motivate you, you probably have a very easy job. The kind robots will be doing soon." A leader should not expect motivational posters to motivate the employee and should anticipate that the posters may do just the opposite.

"You can’t motivate other people, you can only influence what they’re motivated to do".[13]

Today’s employee is more educated and connected to information then ever before. The employee will not be motivated by a simple poster, meaningless words or money. Motivation, and the avoidance of de-motivation, will take work. A leader needs to know what motivates the employee and through two-way communication and actions, align the employee’s goals with those of the organization. This is not a one-time task but a process that needs to be continuously applied, updated and modified over the life of employment. Not only does the employee need to be properly motivated to do what needs to be done, but the leader also needs to be motivated to help the employee, and, therefore, the organization, reach its goals.

1. McManus, John. Leadership: Project and Human Capital Management, Elsevier Science & Technology Books, 2006. p.190
2. Clark, Donald. "Motivation". March 6, 2004
3. Reiss, Steven. Who Am I? The 16 basic desires that motivate our actions and define our personalities. New York: Tarcher/Putnum, 2000. p17-18
4. Taylor, Frederick, Principles of Scientific Management. Harper, 1911
5. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. In Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. Encyclopedia on-line. Available from's_hierarchy_of_needs
6. Frederick Herzberg Motivational Theory In Businessballs. Available from
7. Deci, Edward and Ryan, Richard. Self-Determination Theory. Available from
8. Theory of Needs. In Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. Encyclopedia on-line. Available from
9. Kohn, Alfie. "Challenging Behaviorist Dogma: Myths About Money and Motivation" Compensation and Benefits Review March/April 1998.
10. Fournies, Ferdinand. Why Employees Don’t Do What They’re Supposed to Do and What to Do About It, McGraw-Hill, 1999.
11. Sirota, David & Mischkind, Louis & Meltzer, Michael "Why Your Employees Are Losing Motivation" Harvard Business School, April 10th 2006.
12. Despair Inc.,
13. Bruce, Anne & Pepitone, James. Motivating Employees. McGraw Hill, 1999. p. 1