This article about Employee Motivation and Engagement is the sixth article in a series of twelve about Self-Handicapping Leadership by Professor Phillip Decker and Professor Jordan Mitchell. All articles in this series can be read without knowledge of the previous ones. You’ll find an overview of the articles at the end of this article.

If you have been following this article series, self-handicapping behavior – in yourself or others – will be more easily recognized. You know that self-handicapping typically begins with a claimed excuse – which results in reduced effort and the creation of obstacles for oneself. You also know that having the right goal orientation can prevent self-handicapping.

In this article, we discuss employee motivation and engagement. While research and common sense tell us that an engaged workforce yields positive results, namely innovation, productivity, and performance, approximately 75% of leaders say that their employees are not highly engaged (Harvard Business Review, 2013; Saks, 2006). We believe that employee motivation and engagement is something most of our readers will have to consider at some point – we hope this article makes a difference




Employee Engagement: A definition

Engagement is an emotional and intellectual commitment to put forth extra discretionary effort for a job or organization (Kular, Gatenby, Rees, Soane, & Truss, 2008). It is not workaholism (Defoe, 2012).

Workaholics are psychologically “pushed” to their work, while engaged employees are pulled to their work. Workaholism is the tendency to work excessively hard and be obsessed with work, while engagement is the tendency to work hard towards the creation of a better end result.

Workaholics may work harder than required in order to be heroic and they are unwilling or unable to disengage from work. Workaholism can cause negative outcomes; in contrast, work engagement seems to be more positive and fulfilling. Engagement is associated with high levels of energy, mental resilience while working, willingness to invest effort in one’s work, and persistence (Decker & Mitchell, 2016). Both increase productivity, however, workaholism hurts the individual and is self-defeating – while engagement is not.

Can Engagement be Commanded?

Engagement is a concept that leaders are often confused by: do they make employees engaged or do they let them be engaged? Commanding engagement will not work; only an individual can choose to engage in their job. Managers can only get out of the way and create the conditions that will help their employees to open up, trust, and engage.

“Being in the way” of engagement entails a whole range of claimed and behavioral leadership handicaps. Most new employees show up to the job wanting to be engaged. Most of us go to work with the desire to do something worthwhile, have fun, and be proud of what we do. We all want to be engaged. If leaders can provide employees with a clear, worthy mission, the ability to own their jobs, and an atmosphere where engagement is valued by all, then they have gotten out of the way and allowed engagement to occur. None of this starts with a memo.

Leader: Lead the Way to Motivation – an Anecdote

A major factor influencing employees’ levels of engagement is whether their boss is engaged and consistently shows it. We had an executive tell us a story of a new leadership job that he accepted at a start-up. He went to work eager to contribute and on day seven had to fly half-way across the U.S. with his boss to see a client. The issues: first, they were spending start-up investor money, and second, he knew nothing about the client or processes.

The CEO sat in first class while he sat in coach. The boss could have spent the three-hour flight in coach, briefing and getting to know his new employee. When they arrived and met the other members of the team that would be presenting to the client, they had a party with plenty of liquor (paid for by absent investors) and lots of bad-mouthing the client. This was all very discouraging for the new executive and naturally led to him feeling disengaged. The story ends well because this executive saw his mistake and realized that this was not a company where he could contribute within his management style. Furthermore, he had the courage to resign – after two weeks. He is now a CEO elsewhere.

Employee Motivation and Engagement Suffer from a Leaders’ Disinterest

When a person is not interested and cannot leave, that individual often chooses the path that is easiest or requires the least amount of time and effort. The manager who does little and delegates most of the work to other employees is not liked because employees who are responsible for picking up the slack become resentful and unhappy. This disinterest exhibits a lack of engagement. Indecisiveness or trying to please everyone will do the same.

The best managers provide their employees with the sense that they can be counted on to contribute to the mission and make decisions. The employees may not always agree with the direction, but it is much easier to follow an engaged manager than a disengaged one.

A disinterested manager hesitates, changes his/her mind often, and moves the group in new directions based on new feedback at the drop of a hat. These managers alienate employees who are constantly asked to start, restart, and change direction. Being decisive, hard-working, and reliable are just a few of the many attributes a manager must demonstrate to model engagement (See Decker & Mitchell, 2016).

A Story about Getting Out of the Way of Employee Motivation and Engagement

We were told a story about a department director who was somewhat of a control freak. She had three staff members reporting to her (an analyst and two clerical workers) and the department consistently performed well. One day the director was assigned to a two-year corporate project that required travel. The analyst began to work more closely with the other two staff members, teaching, guiding, and basically running the day-to-day operations, asking for assistance from the director only when it was necessary. Over time, the director noticed how smoothly things were running. This allowed her to ease up on her controlling tendencies and promote the analyst to a manager position.

The three staff members were proud to be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the department. The director now had the time to reflect on strategic issues and the department was able to operate at a higher, more engaged level with four people working full-on. This is an example of getting out of the way of engagement – this manager had to leave the building to make it happen.




Increase Employee Motivation by Mastering High-Stakes Discussions

Increasing employee motivation, being assertive, or holding employees accountable often requires the manager to confront the employee. When leaders face any crucial conversation like this, they can do one of three things: avoid it, face it but handle it poorly, or face it and handle it skillfully. The first two choices are disengaging for employees. Mastering high-stakes discussions will engage employees.

The authors of Crucial Conversations (Patterson & McMillan, 2002) call for a “shared pool of meaning,” where everyone is encouraged to share their ideas. The leader should strive to have employees engage in a shared pool of meaning and conversations about problems. Conversations about engagement should be open and free.

Boost Employee Motivation and Engagement in Conversations

Managers who are skilled at crucial conversations know what they want from any conversation and do not become unfocused. They listen for how they can get out of the way of their employees’ engagement and help them own their work. These conversations fail if participants feel unsafe or they fear that blame will fall on them because they did not have the authority needed to be accountable. When employees feel unsafe they resort either to silence or resistance; both of these are engagement killers. The skilled leader recognizes these as signs to find out why employees do not feel safe in a conversation about engagement.


READ ALSO: Six Effective Ways to have that Difficult Conversation at Work


Furthermore, there is a widely held assumption among managers that showing any vulnerability will make them look weak to the workforce. These managers are aloof and distant. However, an organization in which people don’t trust management and don’t feel free to be open or make mistakes can be corrosive to engagement. Trust and teamwork are eroded. This can lead to individuals simply withdrawing from their work. Managers must be open to their employees. They must be careful about it, but understand that employees are more engaged when the boss is human and all feel unified in working towards the same goals and outcomes.

The Impact of Emotions, Words, and Actions on Employee Motivation and Engagement

Managers need to be aware of their own emotions to be open with their employees. Leaders who are oblivious to their own emotions and how they impact others will have a hard time being open and supportive of others. They need to know what they feel and have an awareness of how their words and actions affect employees (see article #4). That won’t happen unless they examine whether they like people, specifically their employees.

Competent leaders are aware when they are experiencing strong emotions and avoid speaking out of anger or frustration. If they feel the urge to give in to strong emotions, they give themselves a time-out, waiting until their emotions have leveled off, and they have had a chance to think about the situation.

When do Employee Motivation and Engagement Magically Occur?

What if, instead of rolling out complicated programs to address engagement, leaders simply tapped into allowing more employee feedback and discussion (Papay & Santille, 2014)? Employees want to be heard and to contribute to the strategy of the organization. If employees have an opportunity to share and debate important issues, engagement will magically occur.

Here are some final hints to promote employee motivation and engagement in your organization:

  • Talk about the real issues. Allow discussion and respond to people’s concerns.
  • Use lots of open-ended questions to keep the conversation going.
  • Use yourself as an example.
  • Offer anonymity and openness. Do not shoot the messenger.
  • Say “Thank you.”

There are many things, often difficult ones (such as being open and talking about yourself) that can be adopted to help employees engage and own the outcomes of their work (see Decker & Mitchell, 2016). Start tomorrow to increase engagement by following these suggestions:

  • Look everyone in the eye when you speak to them – all day.
  • Get to know one of your employees beyond his/her work behavior.
  • Make a list of which employees are 1) very engaged, 2) moderately engaged, and 3) not engaged.
  • Write a list of what may be causing disengagement in one or two of the individuals in category 2.


Saks, A. M. (2006). Antecedents and consequences of employee engagement. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 21(7), 600–619.

Decker, P., & Mitchell, J. (2016). Self-Handicapping Leadership: The Nine Behaviors Holding Back Employees, Managers, and Companies, and How to Overcome Them. Pearson FT Press.

Defoe, D. (2012). “Engaged Workaholics” – “Do I really want to be a member of this group?” and other questions.

Harvard Business Review. (2013). The Impact of Employee Engagement on Performance.

Kular, S., Gatenby, M., Rees, C., Soane, E., & Truss, K. (2008). Employee engagement: A literature review. 

Papay, M., & Santille, A. (2014). The Most Logical Yet Underrated Employee Engagement Strategy. 

Patterson, G., & McMillan, S. (2002). Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. McGraw-Hill.

List of Articles in this Series about Self-Handicapping Leadership:

#1: Why Self-Handicapping Leadership can be a Hurtful Strategy

#2: From Self-Handicapping Leadership to Mastery Management

#3: Overcoming Self-Handicapping Leadership and the Problem of Accountability

#4: Self-Awareness and Self-Handicapping Leadership

#5: Tunnel Vision – Its Drawbacks and How to Stay Clear of it

#6: How to Skyrocket Employee Motivation and Engagement

#7: Be Best at the Managerial Decision Making Process

#8: Importance of Communication for Leadership and Management

#9 Talent Development Planning and How to Get it Right?

#10 Are you Micromanaging? STOP IT. See Why

#11 Driving for Outstanding Business Results

#12 Exemplary Leadership Practices – one Step at the Time





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