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5 manager mistakes that cause low employee engagement


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

If you’ve made organizational changes to improve engagement, but some of your employees remain withdrawn, you may need to revisit what’s happening at the local work group level, which is directed by your managers.

Addressing employee engagement issues may not be a simple fix. The causes can be complex, and each case may spring from unique issues. As a manager you must determine the reasons behind unacceptable employee engagement before you can take steps to improve it to organizational requirements.

Keep in mind that increasing employee engagement may not be all on the employee. Look at yourself first before looking at your employee as the problem. 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.

5 ways your managers might be fostering low employee engagement

1. Erratic expectations

Good managers convey consistent expectations to their employees. Those expectations must be realistic, clear and concise.

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. This kind of response can lead to employee disengagement.

What’s the fix?

The key to maintaining consistency is communication. While there may be times when that report requires little feedback from you, it’s important the employee knows why.

Expectations can change. Goals can change. The requirements of the organization can change. These need to be communicated to the employee; that way, they gain understanding.

Tell them frankly when you are aware of changes. Let them know this is what changed and why we have to adjust. Solicit their feedback.

The more you can get employees involved in the process of change, especially around expectations and goals, the more success you’ll have getting them on board in a timely fashion.

2. Favoritism

It’s human nature to enjoy working with some employees more than others. You’re going to get along with certain people better than you get along with 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.

What’s the fix?

The way you manage through this is to make certain that you’re being consistent. Consistency is always going to be key to make sure you don’t appear to have favorites. And perception is important, even though it may not match the reality. You may think you’re not playing favorites, but appearances may suggest otherwise.

If you’re consistent with everybody, if you share information with one the way you share it with all – barring confidential matters – employees will come to understand that you’re not doing things covertly and your leadership is above board.

3. Micromanagement

This is a challenging area, particularly with people who have a high need for control as they tend to struggle with micromanagement. Such employees may feel that you don’t trust them, that you don’t think they either have the acumen or the ability to do the job effectively.

That can lead to disengagement and the employee 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 in fact 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.

The bottom line is micromanagement can foster low engagement. It prevents not only the employee from being fully engaged, but also the manager, who winds up spending too much time on supervision and not enough on developing employees.

What’s the fix?

Micromanagement is slowly exiting the workforce because the generational needs are different.

For example, where baby boomers typically want to check the boxes, millennials tend to be more hands off in their work styles. Good managers learn their employees’ traits and lead accordingly.

Remember, micromanagement is also a lack of communication. By not conveying clearly what’s required, the manager can become too hands on. And that is a well-beaten path to employee disengagement.

4. Distractions

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

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.

What’s the fix?

As a leader you must model the behavior you want from your employees. If you want them engaged, you have to be engaged.

You can’t be all over the map; you must be steady and stable. If you’re consistent in that regard, it’s less likely the distractedness is coming from something you may or may not have done.

If the distractedness is coming from the employee side, it’s your job to determine the cause. Internal or external? It could be family matters, health or any number of factors. You must find out before it can be effectively addressed.

Never forget that you shouldn’t expect something from your employee that you aren’t delivering yourself.

5. Burnout

If your employees seem disengaged and overworked, it could be because your managers are. And the converse is also true. If your managers live a balanced life, then their employees likely will as well.

Even when over-worked managers encourage their employees to be balanced, their advice may not be taken seriously. Also, managers who send weekend emails, or don’t use vacation days or workplace perks generally have employees who feel pressured to do the same.

This puts your managers and employees at risk of burnout.

What’s the fix?

Again, it comes back to communication. Have conversations with your employees, ask them how they would like to be managed. A manager’s style can ebb and flow within the parameters of individual preferences and remain effective. And without triggering burnout.

There will be times when a project requires extra work. There are also times when saying no is an option. As long as all parties understand the arrangement, it can help ward off burnout and disengagement.

As a manager, there is another tip to consider. Think about the worst manager you had. You can use those lessons to guide your management decisions.

For example, if you worked for a manager that was typically unclear, or was very hands off, bear in mind how that impacted you as an employee when you craft your own management style.

The big fix: 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. Don’t force your management style on employees. Do your homework and find out which methods are best suited to your situation.

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.

Finally, a manager doesn’t start out being the leader they are today. There is a certain amount of emotional intelligence that is learned through experience. Know mistakes will be made, but you can learn from them.

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.