3 Mistakes Leaders Make About Employee Motivation



The quest for motivation is a seemingly never-ending one; when it comes to motivating other people, though, the equation can get much more complicated. People, after all, are all so different; each one is driven to achieve by different things and in different degrees.

Ironically, supervisors and managers alike often fail to recognise this, choosing well-worn (but ineffective) strategies instead, assuming it will work. When it doesn’t, though, they’re quick to pin it on individual incompetence. Realising where one’s mistakes lie, though, is integral towards learning. To that end, here are some mistakes leaders often make about employee motivation.


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1. Focusing on dangling carrots


Between dangling carrots and brandishing sticks, most people choose the former. In that regard, financial incentives are probably the most popular and widely accepted means of employee motivation today. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s necessarily the most effective. In fact, research indicates two things: firstly, that money may not be all that motivating.

Studies reported in the Harvard Business Review show that contrary to popular belief, there is no correlation between salary and job satisfaction, neither is there a significant link between pay grades and employee engagement levels. The effects held across various cultures and regions of the world.

More interestingly, though, research has also shown that money can even demotivate people.


Daniel Pink, in his bestselling book on intrinsic motivation (“Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”) wrote that when it comes to knowledge work, financial incentives can provide the opposite effect to what they were intended for. In other words, when people were intrinsically motivated and already interested and engaged in their work, being given financial incentives for it reduced their enjoyment, subsequently lowering motivation.

All of this points to one thing: for employee motivation strategies to work, they must focus on non-financial incentives. According to a survey by employee engagement firm TINYpulse, the top 3 most important factors to employee motivation were peer support, the intrinsic desire to perform well, and feeling recognised at work.



2. What works for one person, works for everyone


A lot of the time, efforts to motivate employees don’t work not because people are that problematic, but because company leadership simply don’t have their finger on the pulse of employee well-being. That’s not to say that they’re neglecting employee needs completely; only that they’re failing to listen properly to what people say they need to perform well.


First of all, motivation isn’t one size fits all. Different personalities are driven by different pursuits and interests; assuming that the same thing is enough to motivate everyone on the team equally is fallacious. For example, some people need more autonomy to be motivated, while others don’t need as much. Here, there’s no shortcut; leaders must make it a point to find out what drives each one of their people.

Secondly, rewarding people with things that they don’t really need doesn’t just fail to motivate them, it can also be demotivating because it reflects that you, as a leader, aren’t paying attention to what they really need. For instance, elite performers are often “rewarded” with more work, when a lot of the time, what they’d really appreciate more is some time off. Similarly, recognising good performance with small gifts like vouchers really isn’t going to motivate someone if they feel overworked and on the brink of burnout.



3. Failing to practice gratitude in leadership


As stated earlier, one of the most common sources of employee motivation is feeling recognised. People want to feel like the work they do is impactful and appreciated by their co-workers and superiors. The mentality that it’s absurd to be thanked just for doing your job doesn’t fly anymore.


While it doesn’t mean that you need to thank people every day, it does mean that you should make it a point to make gratitude a core team practice. Setting aside 5-7 minutes at the start of meetings for people to commend and thank their teammates at work can make a huge difference.

Here’s the thing, though: how you praise your people also determines the effect it has on their motivation. Praise that emphasises natural ability and talent can encourage fixed mindsets that are counterproductive to growth. Conversely, praise that emphasises effort or good strategy has been shown to be predictive of growth-mindedness.


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