Much of what we read about employee motivation suggests that this is the job of leaders and managers as though employees are incapable of doing so themselves. The assumption that people are naturally unmotivated has created a large market for books, videos and training workshops on how leaders can learn how to do this. Leaders end up working harder at trying to keep their people motivated than employees do themselves. In the long run, they end up fostering dependence and a sense of entitlement in employees who come to rely on their leader to tell them what to do and how they should feel about their work. What leaders actually need to do is spend more time trying to understand what they do that demotivates their employees.

Motivation is an emotional issue, not a rational one, and you can’t tell an employee to get excited about work if they don’t feel it. It is surprising how many leaders get angry at their employees for this very thing. How an employee feels about him or herself while engaging in their work is the strongest determinant of the level of motivation they will demonstrate. Emotions are the energetic force behind motivation, meaningful experiences and interactions at work. They are an essential and undeniable part of everyday organizational life. Demotivation, on the other hand, is an emotional state of overall dissatisfaction where employees withhold their energy or use it against the leader and organization. It can be defined as a reduction in the emotional energy that is directed toward achieving the goals of the business.

A demotivated employee is one who appears apathetic, disinterested or simply exhibits an attitude of entitlement, all contributing to productivity losses at work. Presenteeism, higher absenteeism, complaining, disorganized workspaces, or even just inattentiveness to timelines and performance expectations are just some of the symptoms. Lack of motivation is also seen in “acting out” or counterproductive work behaviours such as aggression, hostility, lack of respect for authority or theft.

Frustrated with trying to motivate employees or to figure out what is “wrong” with them, leaders can resort to forcing, shaming or intimidating employees into better performance. Although this approach may give leaders the idea that they are in back control, the result is generally fleeting. Forcing employees or motivating them through fear can help leaders achieve their goals in the short term, but it will ultimately contribute to employee unrest, sabotage, or high turnover with its inherent loss of skills and knowledge.

How an employee feels about themselves at work is critical to their capacity to direct their energy toward achieving the goals of the company. When leaders fail to understand this, they can inadvertently, unconsciously or unwittingly end up demotivating their employees. Here are some things that employees often feel because of their leader’s behavior.

Overwhelmed or overextended. Because leaders are willing to work long and hard to achieve results, they can communicate verbally or nonverbally that they expect employees to as well. Employees end up feeling little satisfaction as they can’t work to the best of their ability.

Unappreciated. A lack of appreciation from leaders can make employees feel resentful and used. Being appreciated for insignificant contributions or things that are not of value to the employee causes the same feeling.

Insecure or anxious. Nit-picking and micromanaging employees leads to an anxious workforce, afraid to initiate anything without being told. A lack of clarity or definition around tasks and timelines also causes employees to doubt themselves.

Devalued or shamed. Leaders who use indirect communication or sarcasm when employees disagree with their ideas can cause fear and shame. Employees feel devalued when leaders are dismissive of their ideas and input.

Helpless or powerless. Observing unfair practices such as favouritism, the rewarding of poor performance, or the fostering of competition amongst team members is upsetting to most employees as they don’t feel empowered to do anything about it. They will stop caring and feel contempt for their leader.

Feeling untrustworthy. When leaders withhold information or dole it out on a “need-to-know” basis, they inadvertently communicate to employees that they don’t trust their employees.

Feeling blamed. Leaders who fail to ensure employees understand what is expected of them can end up treating their employees as though they are not doing their job or are incompetent. They cause them to feel anger and resentment by blaming them.

Although leaders can’t motivate employees, they can create an environment or culture in which employees feel a desire to contribute and invest their energy. Leaders must be aware of how their behavior makes people feel and how it impacts the motivation and performance of their employees. The question they need to ask themselves is “How is my behavior making my employees feel?” so they can gradually shift the emotional and energetic climate at work. Find out more about how you can develop powerful, authentic leaders to drive your organization’s success by listening to Episode #10 of our podcast, entitled “Dysfunction of Low Emotional Intelligence”. 

Learn how you can lead with authority. Get a copy of So You Think You Can Lead? on Amazon. 


Anne and Heather are organizational and leadership development experts at Caliber Leadership Systems, a boutique consulting firm specializing in dismantling of dysfunction in organizations.  They are dedicated to empowering individuals, leaders, and organizations to achieve their potential by leveraging their expertise in the neurobiology of human development combined with system thinking approach. They wear many hats – Consultants, Executive Coaches, Trainers, Speakers and Authors – adapting their expertise and solutions to meet the needs of their clients. They bring a unique depth and breadth of knowledge and experience that gives clients the benefit of all of our disciplines to help them achieve their goals.

As experts in human development and behavioral change, leadership and organizational transformation, interpersonal dynamics and the achievement of potential, Anne and Heather have worked with thousands of leaders and individuals from around the world, been featured in dozens of publications, spoken at professional conferences, and written several series of books on personality type and the brain based on the Striving Styles® and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.

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