5 Mistakes Leaders Make When Motivating Their Teams

Only about 30% of employees are engaged on the job, and disengaged workers cost employers at least $450 billion a year in lost productivity, according to Gallup data.

The path ahead for managers is clear: Boosting engagement means boosting motivation, productivity and profits. But that’s easier said than done. Managers, especially those early in their leadership careers, consistently list motivating employees as one of their biggest challenges.

Why? Many supervisors don’t actually know what motivates employees. In a widely referenced study from the University of Michigan, researchers asked employees and employers to rank what workers want most out of their jobs. The two groups gave surprisingly different answers: Employees said their No. 1 motivator was “interesting work,” but employers ranked that fifth, predicting “good wages” would be the top motivator for workers.

Serving as a successful team leader starts with understanding how to motivate your team most effectively. Start by avoiding these five mistakes leaders make when motivating others:

1) Ignoring team dynamics. When TINYhr surveyed 200,000 employees at more than 500 companies, the employee engagement solutions firm discovered that their top motivators on the job are camaraderie and peer motivation. Unfortunately, managers often overlook this component, especially in times of business stress—ironically, the time team dynamics deserve even greater emphasis.

When establishing a team, or before bringing on a new person, consider personal dynamics. Spend time mapping out how the team will gel, both in terms of personalities and areas of expertise. Then set clear but challenging goals, and encourage the team to collaborate to meet them.

2) Micromanaging. Leaders are typically promoted to the management level because they’re driven and successful at their jobs. They’re used to doing the work and may be uncomfortable relinquishing that control.

Avoid this at all costs. In many cases, the best first step for managers who want to boost motivation may simply be getting out of the way. According to research from the University of Pennsylvania, highly educated employees work more when they have autonomy over their schedules—sometimes to the point of exhaustion.

While the latter obviously isn’t preferable, this translates to productivity as well. People are more invested in their work when they’re able to put their mark on it. Give them the room to do so.

3) Managing instead of leading. Get out of the way, but don’t step aside completely. Research suggests that team members look to managers and leaders for inspiration and guidance—but many aren’t getting it. Only about half of employees feel inspired by their leaders, while a third say they don’t get the support they need from supervisors, according to 2014 research from Towers Watson.

The most effective managers and team leaders provide this inspiration and support by leading from within the group. To do that, start by simply using this one word a lot more often: “together”.

According to research summarized in the Harvard Business Review, simply telling teams they were working together generated significant results. Groups that felt more collaborative worked 48% longer, solved more problems correctly and even said they found their tasks more interesting.

4) Focusing only on monetary incentives. Companies and managers too often assume bonuses, raises and other monetary carrots are the best way to motivate employees. But that’s far from true. In the aforementioned study which compared what employees say motivates them to what employers think motivates them, employees listed four broad categories of incentives ahead of good wages:

  • Interesting work
  • Appreciation of work
  • Feeling “in on things”
  • Job security

Researchers at the University of Florida analyzed the study and developed 10 questions managers should ask to foster a more motivational climate for employees. Use these questions often.

5) Looking too far past the present. Many motivation techniques focus on how to motivate teams in the long term. But what if you need to motivate a team to finish a project this week, meet a tight deadline today or help a struggling team step up its game immediately?

Using “if-then” statements is one strategy to consider. If-then statements follow a simple equation: If X happens, I will do Y. For example, “If the team hasn’t tackled all the claims by the end of the day, then we’ll come in early on Monday,” or “If we haven’t met our sales goal for July, then we’ll hire an extra rep for the fall.”

Psychologically, if-then statements work because they form a direct cause and effect between the two actions, strengthening their connection in the brain. The tactic gets results: In a study that used if-then statements to get people to exercise, 91% of people who used “if-then” stuck to their workout regimens, compared to just 39% of those who didn’t.

Interested in learning more about motivating your teams? Consider registering for next week’s Management Education program, a one-week training program hosted by The Institutes in partnership with the Wisconsin School of Business, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Or learn more about the Associate in Management designation from The Institutes to develop the real-world skills you need to effectively manage your team, strategically plan initiatives and make smarter business decisions.

Nichole Murton, program director at The Institutes CPCU Society, holds an MBA with a concentration in human resources from the University of Phoenix and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Temple University.