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9 Communication Mistakes That Hurt Employee Motivation

published: August 18, 2020

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

When answering this question, most people list a host of things. They range from short to long term goals, both internal and external as well. For example, "I want to be my own boss one day" or "I need to provide for my family."

Human motivation is complex, and there are a lot of individual differences. And the truth is, leaders aren't in control of every aspect of an employee's deeper motivations. 

Universal motivators

Although individual differences in motivation exist, fundamentally, humans are cut from the same cloth. In other words, universals exist, too.

For instance, in his popular book on human motivation called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, the author Daniel Pink asserts three key motivators exist for employees: mastery, autonomy, and purpose. 

If leaders want to improve employee motivation, they must must incorporate these key motivators in their management and communication habits.

However, leaders get busy, and the critical task of managing the environment and people often take a back seat.

When poor communication harms motivation

Here are a few examples of typical communication mistakes and behaviours that leaders should be mindful of.

Any of these done in moderation shouldn't cause a problem. However, if these become a pattern, leaders should take an honest look at their communication habits and re-assess their behaviour and priorities.

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8 Communication Mistakes That Hurt Employee Motivation

Rarely asking employees how they are doing

Busy leaders can often take employees' presence for granted. As a result, they may make less effort to engage socially with them. Unfortunately, overlooking relationship-building actions has negative consequences. These actions are necessary because they allow leaders to connect with their employees and show them that you care. 

Ideally, leaders should be asking employees how they are feeling regularly. Suppose you're tired of asking the same old question like, "How was your weekend." Try asking, "What did you do this weekend" instead. This open-ended question will spark a different type of conversation. 

Not creating opportunities for group praise

Psychological studies prove the power of peer motivation. For example, in an employee study, researchers asked: "What motivates you to excel and go the extra mile at your organization?" What the survey found as the number motivator: camaraderie and peer motivation. Simply put, the desire to be accepted by your team is a powerful motivator. The popularity of social media is further proof of the power of peer approval. 

Managers may hurt motivation by failing to make time to recognize hard work and accomplishments publicly. For example, a manager may neglect to showcase and communicate everyone's hard work, though team meetings and other social events that bring people together. 

Failing to listen

Good communication isn't only about speaking clearly; it's also about being good at listening. Because when people feel heard at work, it can have a strong, positive impact on their job satisfaction. On the other hand, feeling unheard makes people feel helpless and disempowered—a motivation killer.

That said, poor listening can manifest in many ways, such as not prioritizing one-on-one time with employees. Or when there is a one-on-one, the manager is doing the majority of the talking instead of listening.

In the worst case, poor listening can manifest as a leader minimizing an employee's frustration by switching topics, reducing its severity, or even placing blame on the employee. In this context, the employee doesn't feel heard nor supported—understandably, ending in a loss of motivation.

Rarely offering recognition

Failing to recognize hard work is one of the biggest motivation killers. Genuine employee recognition is a powerful thing, and it's virtually free.

Merely saying "thank you" and communicating appreciation for an employee's effort can go a long way. Studies show that 36% of employees felt so strongly about recognition that it was "the number one reason they're considering switching jobs.

There is no reason communicating gratitude should fall to the bottom of a manager's priority list. When recognition is woven into daily interactions, it should become second nature. As a result, offering appreciation becomes an organic gesture and another part of everyday life at work. 

Making all the decisions

An essential component of human motivation is feeling in control. People want to feel as if they have some level of influence over their environment. In short, the key to employee motivation is empowerment. For example, psychological studies show that a reduction in autonomy gives rise to unhappiness, not only at work but also in life. 

As such, giving employees greater autonomy and flexibility has become a part of modern management practices. Supporting these values through communication easy. For example, instead of unilaterally making decisions, managers can open up communication by asking employees about their opinions on the topic.

Asking an employee's opinion gives them a voice. It makes employees feel like their judgment and knowledge matter. This is an invaluable gesture in building a collaborative and motivating work environment.

Offering little feedback 

A 2019 study showed a third of employees who quit their jobs did so because they didn't learn new skills or better performance. Many employees become unmotivated when leaders don't offer feedback or challenge them. In other words, employees are not allergic to hard work; they invite it! People want to be held to a standard and to grow. 

Unfortunately, many managers wait until the yearly review to give feedback and re-evaluate an employee's duties. When an employee must wait until a yearly review for feedback, it is sure to harm motivationespecially for passionate, driven workers. These are the people you need on your team!

As such, leaders should be wary of carving out time to communicate feedback and thinking of ways to give more significant responsibilities to devoted employees. 

Turning down ideas 

Great employees want to go the extra mile. They won't only do their "on paper" job, but look for areas they can improve the process and maximize the results. When a motivated employee offers improvements ideas to their managers only to be turned down, it can be highly unmotivating. To an employee, it can feel like their manager doesn't value their opinion or care that a processes may be outdated or ineffective. 

In reality, employee ideas cannot always be acted upon right away. Leaders may have other priorities lined up. That's OK. But leaders who wish to maintain motivation should, at the very least, recognize and thank the employee for their extra effort and time.

Being out of reach 

Rescheduling meetings, taking forever to reply, not showing up, speaking to employees only during formal meetings, all these behaviours are indicative of an absent leader. Unless they lead a team of seniors or experts, these habits can be highly unmotivating for employees on the receiving end.

A leader who is present and available is always preferred. Knowing that your manager has your back if you need them provides a feeling of psychological security that instantly boosts happiness and morale. 

Final Thoughts

People are often motivated by external things such as money, status, and possessions. But this narrow view of only scratches the surface of human motivation. Take a look under the wealth and prestige. These desires are an expression of our most fundamental needs—for example, social acceptance, safety, enjoyment, autonomy, respect, and growth.

When leaders exercise healthy communication, they are supporting these basic human needs. Employees are more satisfied and fulfilled. As a result, they are motivated to perform well day-to-day. 

That said, to maintain deep-rooted employee motivation, leaders must weave all these fundamental needs into the entire system as well, for example, by designing policies, practices, and culture that supports them. These efforts, coupled with healthy communication, is the key to promoting lasting employee motivation.