Employee Engagement Mistakes: Manipulation Is Not Motivation
Employee Engagement Mistakes: Manipulation Is Not Motivation

Employee Engagement Mistakes: Manipulation Is Not Motivation

This blog is the fourth in the series of seven.  There are mistakes that leaders make that are disastrous for employee engagement.  The tragedy is the lack of awareness on the part of the leaders.  If I wanted to be dramatic I could call these mistakes “leadership malpractice”.  Malpractice is the failure of a professional to provide effective service due to ignorance, incompetence, and or criminality and which causes injury.  These mistakes fall into the categories of ignorance and incompetence.  I do not wish to suggest criminal intent, although that certainly is possible.

Wells Fargo fired over 5,000 employees in 2016 for opening phony accounts for customers.  Their pay-for-performance policy and the pressure applied by managers to meet company goals were contributing factors to this tragedy.  This is a classic example of leadership malpractice.  The Wells Fargo leaders set the policies, applied the pressure to employees, and in doing so injured them.

Mistake #1: Not appreciating the concept of a system >>

Mistake #2:  Believing you must have all the answers >>

Employee Engagement Mistakes: Destroying the System Performance>>

Mistake #4: Misunderstanding Motivation – Manipulation Is NOT Motivation

In 2013, within months of each other, two stories came out of Buffalo, NY.  The first was from Buffalo News, which explained how its elementary school students’ proficiency scores, on the new standardized tests, took a “sharp but anticipated plunge”  (Tan, 2013).  For example, only 31 percent of students in third through eighth grade met or exceeded the proficiency standards.

The second story reported that “More Than 90 Percent of State Teachers Rate as Effective” (Paterniti, 2013).  How can this be?  Teachers are effective but students are failing?  You couldn’t make this up, right? But it’s real, and you can make it happen through confusing manipulation and motivation.  I call this particulate confusion another example of “leadership malpractice.”

The confusion between manipulation and motivation stems from embracing another false assumption.  Our educators, and many of our leaders, FALSELY believe people (employees or students) can be motivated.  The truth is people can be manipulated but not motivated. They are naturally motivated in a motivating environment.  They must be manipulated in a de-motivating environment.  Schools are creating a de-motivating context and are attempting to manipulate both teachers (with performance evaluations) and students (with standardized testing) with an external carrot and stick system.

Effective leadership embraces a different assumption: leaders can’t motivate people.  They can only create a context that allows motivation to occur naturally.  Students don’t need to be motivated to learn because they naturally want to learn about things they care about and about things that interest them.  But, they must be manipulated in a de-motivating context, like when they are forced to learn something that is not of interest.

I believe there are three key characteristics of a motivating context.  I call them the Triple “A”’s of Engagement and Motivation.


The first “A” is for Anxiety.  Anxiety is often considered a negative force (emotion) that causes stress and stagnation.  Positive anxiety, on the other hand, is the urgent emotional need to act before an opportunity is lost.  Positive anxiety is useful for learning and development.  A balance between challenging tasks and the skills a person (student or employee) needs to perform that task will generates positive anxiety.  This positive anxiety is required for employee engagement and is necessary for learning.  Providing people with appropriate challenges is not just good practice but necessary for motivation.  In schools, standardized tests attempt to do this, but they have one big problem.  The tests are engaging for some, too easy for others, and too challenging for most.  This lack of balance damages motivation and therefore damages engagement.  Students need choice to identify tasks that match their skills.  This leads us to the second “A”.



The second “A” is for Autonomy.  Autonomy is the freedom to determine actions and decisions.  Autonomy is about freedom of self-government and self-management.  With autonomy, the person decides when and how to act to solve a problem.  No authorization by superiors, whether teachers or administrators, is necessary.

The school system has removed autonomy.  Teachers have no choice about the curriculum or testing, but they are being evaluated.  Therefore, they have less control over HOW to teach.  Motivation is severely damaged when the context is void of autonomy.


The third “A” is for Advancement.  People need to see how their efforts make a difference to themselves and others. Advancement must not just be progress for the sake of progress.

Three elements are needed to accomplish advancement.  First, we must understand the aim of our actions.  Actions must be seen in the context of a higher purpose.  This means the “reasons why” must be made clear. In schools, students are most often told to study topics “because it will be on the test.”  This is manipulation not motivation.

Secondly, we must have feedback on our tasks and that feedback should be immediate (or as close to immediate as possible) and frequent.  Without immediate and frequent feedback motivation is damaged.  In public schools, there is often a significant delay in feedback.  Teachers often take days or more to grade papers and quizzes.  The delay between action and information must be as short as possible to optimize employee engagement and motivation.

This combination of acting toward a clear compelling purpose, receiving feedback, and seeing credible progress enhances the experience of motivation.  I was making conversation with a 15-year-old high school sophomore the other day.  He had written a paper about the Spanish-American War the evening before our chat.  I asked him to tell me more about the subject.  He told me it was about the reasons America fought that war.  I asked him to explain those reasons, mainly because I personally had forgotten those facts and was curious about it.  He told me he couldn’t remember. “You wrote it last night and you can’t remember?” I said, and he simply replied, “Yes.”

This is an example of the legacy of the false premise, and the context of de-motivation it creates.  Many of our leaders still embrace this and it is a mistake.  Our students and employees rarely understand why a subject or task is important, they have few or no proper challenge, little or no autonomy to work with what interests them, and they see little or no progress in their efforts, and so leaders use manipulation.  The confusion between manipulation and motivation is alive and well and creating tragic results in both schools and workplaces.  People can’t be motivated by others but they can motivate themselves if they are working within a motivating context.  Leaders who fail to see this are guilty of leadership malpractice.

Wally HauckWally Hauck, PhD, has a cure for the “deadly disease” known as the typical performance appraisal.  Wally holds a doctorate in organizational leadership from Warren National University, a Master’s of Business Administration in finance from Iona College, and a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania.  

Wally is a Certified Speaking Professional or CSP.  Wally has a passion for helping leaders let go of the old and embrace new thinking to improve leadership skills, employee engagement, and performance.

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