5 Manager Mistakes That Can Kill Employee Engagement

Did you know that bad management is typically the root cause of low employee engagement?

If you’ve written off withdrawn workers after making organizational changes to improve engagement, you may need to revisit what’s happening at the local workgroup level, which, of course, is directed by your managers.

It may be time to admit, “It’s not you, it’s me,” to your disengaged employees if you find the following behaviors present among your managers.

Here are five ways your managers might be undermining employee engagement.

1. Erratic expectations

Good managers convey consistent expectations to their employees.

But sometimes a manager is lenient one day and tough the next. Or when an employee finishes a project, they change the scope and ask the employee to start over. It’s not just a matter of steadily raising the bar, but treating the same employee behaviors differently at various times.

For example, an employee may turn in the same report every month with little response from the manager. Then, one month, the manager critiques it closely without acknowledging the change in expectations.

Lacking predictable expectations, employees often become disengaged because they don’t know how to prioritize their efforts.

2. Favoritism

It’s human nature to enjoy working with some employees more than others. But similar to having erratic expectations, sometimes managers give a different response for the same behavior from different employees due to personality preferences.

For example, when two employees ask their manager what they know about a piece of company news at separate times, the manager shares more information with one than the other.

Whether it’s heavier praise or lighter critique, inconsistent responses can create an unfair environment — a real injury to employee engagement.

3. Micromanagement

Employees may eventually shut down and lose interest in their job if your managers insist on controlling every detail of their work.

Supervisors who micromanage may be convinced that no one can do the job better than they can. They may feel overwhelmed by team performance expectations. This can make them feel insecure and cause them to place unnecessary pressure on their employees.

Micromanagement tells employees their work and judgments aren’t trustworthy. It prevents not only the employee from being fully engaged, but also the manager, who’s spending too much energy supervising and not enough developing employees so that your business has the people power it needs to continue to achieve its goals.

4. Distractedness

Some managers have the opposite problem. They’re too engrained in their own responsibilities and come off as aloof.

Your employees’ interaction with their direct manager is the No. 1 driver of engagement, according to a 2014 Aberdeen Group study.

Distracted managers often ignore their employees. As a result, employees end up working in silos, disconnected from their team and the rest of the company. They lose sight of how their day-to-day work is contributing to the company’s mission and goals. They may feel a lack of purpose and therefore lose motivation to put forth any extra effort.

5. Burnout

If your employees seem disengaged and overworked, it could be because your managers are.

A Harvard Business Review (HBR) study of 19,000 employees found that leaders who work sustainably (with a focus on their four core needs: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual), have employees who are much more engaged and fulfilled than managers who don’t have work-life balance.

Even when over-worked managers encourage their employees to be balanced, their advice may not be taken seriously.

According to HBR, managers who don’t use vacation days, workplace perks or send weekend emails generally have employees who feel pressured to do the same.

This puts your managers and employees at risk of burnout.

How to fix it: Teach your managers how to coach employees

If you suspect your managers may be the cause of poor employee productivity or morale, you may need to consider offering more training and support. You may also want to tie their performance goals and rewards to their direct reports’ engagement levels.

But before you invest in training, ask for feedback from the manager’s direct reports that might explain why they’re not being more productive.

Sometimes it’s not what the manager believes the issue is — it’s something else entirely.

Also think about building on the management and engagement successes that already exist inside your organization.

Ask yourself:

  • Who manages my most engaged employees?
  • What are their management styles like?
  • What makes people want to work hard for them?
  • What is it about the employee/manager relationship that encourages engagement?

These answers can help identify what your best managers currently do to promote higher employee engagement. Then, you can look for ways to duplicate their good habits across your organization with the resources and frameworks you already have.

At the end of the day, your managers’ focus should be on how to help their employees do their jobs better, so that your business can run and grow as efficiently and effectively as possible.

Looking for more strategies to help resolve your employee engagement struggles? Download our free e-book, How to Develop a Top-notch Workforce That Will Accelerate Your Business.

Natty Gur

Do you think that the root cause of low engagement is the current management practice and the hierarchical structure of most companies?

Insperity Blog

Hi Natty, and thank you for your comment. While there are usually a variety of factors that contribute to low employee engagement, it’s certainly worth noting that having the right processes and structure in place can help lay the foundation for improved employee engagement.


I specifically wanted to read this article regarding managerial mistakes for 1. to see what the writer of this article thinks qualifies as “mistakes”… and 2. I am working with a new manager right now and some of the things she is doing/not doing are affecting how I feel about my company, and I see it’s affecting my day to day performance and I wanted to share that with you. The clearest and most consistent feeling I have is that this manager does not really care about me as an individual…… and we all know that it is each & every individual employee that makes the company whole and successful. Someone told me once that when people are habitually late, the message that they are really sending is that their time is more important than yours. This new manager consistently send’s that message to me. She does not reply to 90% of my emails. She may very well be working on the issue that I have emailed about but not responding is rude and tells me that acknowledging me just is not that important and don’t really deserve the courtesy of a response. She recently called me at the end of my work day to “have my employee review” with me!! No notice, no scheduling of a time…… did she just assume I would be available and not thrown by this sudden conversation. I guess it all boils down to professionalism. Let’s just say this isn’t my 1st rodeo and time and time again I have seen people given managerial positions with no training whatsoever on how to be a leader, a professional, yet we (the employees) are expected/required to give those same courtesies back to our team members/managers/clients.


Sad and falling out of love with my job.

Insperity Blog

Hi Tara, Thank you for sharing your story. I’m sorry to hear about your struggles with your current manager. Hopefully, you two may be able to find some common ground and a communication style that allows you to better understand one another’s needs within a work environment.

Looney Lucy

I too was in the same situation with the former company Tara, Guess what we quit on Valentine’s Day!! I had enough of the mismanagement in the work environment. I put in 19yrs on and off of my life just to quit because there is no structure on how to manage employees. This company needs to take a course on how to better themselves in a employee/management relationship rather than the PNL.