6 management mistakes that will kill employee motivation

I was talking to an elementary school teacher the other day who works for a major school district. While there are many things she likes about her job, her list of complaints was pretty long. It made me wonder how many small business owners are making these same type of management mistakes.

She told me that a couple of years ago, the leaders of her district said they wanted to put power back into the hands of local principals. That sounds like a great idea, but it didn’t really seem to make any difference in the major aspects of her job duties or how situations are managed. Many of her complaints centered around overly strict rules or the lack of flexibility.

See if you would have to plead guilty to any of these 6 management mistakes that will kill employee motivation.

  1. A simply silly dress code. Teachers can only wear jeans on Fridays. This is probably related to a student dress code of some kind. I remember a time when girls were required to wear dresses to school. That started to change when they were allowed to wear pants on Friday. Here’s the problem: Once you say jeans are okay on Friday, you’ve said that jeans are okay, period. There is nothing magic about Friday.

It’s a fact today that dress and grooming norms have changed. For example, I often see major television hosts with no tie and having gone a day or two without shaving. That would have been unheard of five years ago. Don’t ask for more than is truly required.

  1. Too many mandatory tasks that no one pays attention to. You probably know that public school students today are subjected to all kinds of mandatory tests. I’m told that many serve no educational purpose; the results don’t get back to teachers so they can use them to help students. They are just used as a hammer to hold over the heads of districts and principals. Do you require your employees to do things that don’t make your business better? Are there required forms being filled out that never get looked at or followed up on?
  2. Too many approvals required. Committees and principals are required to sign off on a wide range of rather ordinary activities teachers would like to do with their students. When an employee has to go to others to get approval, it slows down the process, creates frustration, and leads to lost opportunities. Employees stop asking to do innovative things when there are too many hoops to jump through.
  3. Too many strings attached. Education funding comes from a variety of sources. Most of the money is local or state money, but there is federal money as well. Sadly, strings are attached to the money that put very narrow limits on how it can be spent; it’s a symptom of government’s myopic vision. I see a similar problem in many small businesses where the owner or manager will have an idea, begin to implement it, then refuse to adapt and change as others make suggestions.
  4. Too many unproductive employees. In education, bureaucrats will often “throw money” at a problem in unproductive ways. For example, if a school seems to be struggling they will fund “coaches” to supposedly work with the teachers. By strict rules, the coaches aren’t allowed to work directly with students – they are supposed to work with teachers. Two things happen, according to my teacher friend:
  • Most coaches see the positions as “no work” jobs, and
  • Teachers already have too much to do in the course of a day to add working with a coach to their schedules.

Business owners make these same mistakes when they find a problem and just “throw a body at it.” You need to be more creative and flexible in your problem solving.

  1. Strict performance reviews. A few years earlier, her district adopted the attitude that for performance review scoring essentially every teacher is average and it hurt motivation. I understand this from a mathematical or statistical point of view, but performance reviews aren’t about bell curves. Reviews are tools to motivate and help improve employee performance. Let me make a simple, but very important statement: If employees are not motivated, they will not improve their performance.

You can’t tell everyone that they’re just average and then expect them to leave the room ready and raring to go improve their performance. And, think about it, if everyone did raise their performance, in this system, they would still be just average! You need to consider this in reviews. Psychologists tell us that it takes something like 10 positive comments to offset just one negative comment. Using a system that adheres to a rule that ignores this fact will create a severely dissatisfied workforce.

As you look at these six motivation-killing management mistakes, I want you to notice something: All of them start with good intentions. Leadership starts out trying to avoid waste, be assured that procedures are being followed, improve in certain areas, etc. Where they go wrong is in their inability to be flexible, adapt, and recognize that they are working with humans, not “systems.”