Employee motivation strategies that don’t work

Tessara Smith,  PayScale

When you type in the words employee motivation into Google’s search bar, an overabundance of articles pop up suggesting ways to coax your disengaged employees to “check back in”. You read article after article and the themes seem to get a bit redundant to say the least. If you are an experienced manager or executive, chances are you have a good grasp on what works in terms of keeping motivation in your office alive. Still there are a lot of ideas floating around out there about how to maintain employee’s desire to keep doing phenomenal work for your company. What most fail to mention in their articles however are employee motivation strategies that don’t work. 

Here are some of those ideas that may seem logical but do not produce the desired results when actually executed.

  • Strict deadlines
    Yes, work needs to get done on time, but not all employees can work with rigorous deadlines. While some employees are sprint finishers and strive to get things done before they are due, others will crack under the pressure to complete their work in such a short period. As a manager you need to determine which employees can work with deadlines and which ones will need more flexibility to get tasks done. You should place more emphasis on the quality of the work rather than the pace at which it gets finished.
  • Job status threats
    If you aren’t happy with the work (or lack thereof) of your employee, you can fire them. They know it, you know it, and the whole office knows it. Never threaten to take away an employee’s position as a means to motivate them to work harder. If anything this type of intimidation will only lead to them become further disengaged than they already are. Instead look for ways you can help them become a better fit for their position. There is no arguing that some employees will inevitably need to be let go, but with a little extra encouragement others may be quick to get back on the productivity track.
  • Co-dependent tactics
    Teamwork is great, but not everyone wants to be forced to work with others on a daily basis. Many employees will do their best work individually when they can organize their own thoughts and ideas without any outside input. The majority of the time teamwork is actually necessary, but make sure that your employees are not limited to group projects.
  • Setting the bar too low
    Perhaps you have a relaxed style of management and you give your employees a lot of leeway when it comes to completing tasks and projects. If you are lucky enough to have a team that is hardworking and motivated then there may not be a pressing need for motivational reform. However, people do have a tendency to rise to the occasion, and they cannot be expected to do so if they aren’t presented with new challenges. Do not be afraid to ask more of your employees; they may be more talented then you previously thought.
  • Setting the bar too high
    Company goals are important to make, meet, and maintain. However, asking more of your employees then they are capable of is just plain unrealistic. Make sure the goals you set are not out of reach for your current team members. Obviously your top performers can be held to higher standards, but these aren’t the employees you need to be concerned about motivating.
  • Pyramids
    While it is completely professional to hand out plaques and awards as a form of recognition; hopefully your business isn’t ranking the status of employees using some form of public display. Unless your company is trying to educate employees on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, pyramid charts are a no go. Pointing out who your superstars are to the rest of your team is not only unnecessary, it is just plain discouraging. Give your top employees appropriate praise and compensation, but save the poster paper for your kid’s next school project.

New ideas about how to motivate and engage employee’s surface everyday however many forget that there are a lot of strategies out there that are completely backfiring on managers. It is just as important to implement new strategies as it is to avoid using bad ones. As a leader you need to find ways to continue to motivate and engage employees however, make sure to recognize when certain strategies just aren’t working out.

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4 Comments on "Employee motivation strategies that don’t work"

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Karen – this article is interesting. It pretty much disputes all of LINC’s motivational tactics for the sales people. Crazy.

David K.

You are absolutely correct on these points. Many of the motivational tricks are downright insulting to professional adults and treat employees more like Pavlovian puppies. Not good.
If a company wants to attract and keep emotionally mature and professional adults, they should treat employees as such. If you don’t have an emotionally mature professional adult, you should just show them the door (politely of course) and move on to the next one (after doing a better job of screening the applicant).


With your info in this article, are you finding blanket correlation to all types of organization and work groups? As previously commented, these strategies are typical/standard in a sales work groups. I’m interested to know how the data was collected to support the article.


Many sales people and managers do not act as “mature adults”. Check out any car dealership.