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Exhorting Employee To Work Harder - Common Managerial Mistakes Series

It's not surprising that managers try to improve productivity and employee effectiveness by exhorting staff to "try harder", or to make more of an effort in their jobs. It's a natural human tendency to assume that the simple act of trying harder will result in better results, but more times than not, the assumption is incorrect.

Learn more about this common managerial mistake, its pitfalls, and what to do about it.

In our often Western dominated organizational thinking, we attribute a lot of employee success (and our own success) to "trying harder", or "working harder". This assumption about the relationship of effort to effectiveness is often incorrect, since there are many more powerful forced that influence results.

Managers often get caught up in the idea that "if only employees would try harder, or work harder, we'd get far better results". Caught in this incorrect assumption, they rely on exhortation of employees to improve productivity. It doesn't usually work, and it can end up backfiring.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Working harder or trying harder is useless if the barrier to performance has nothing to do with those things. That's often the case. Performance is affected far more by things like employee skills, ability, understanding of their jobs, and restrictions placed on employees by the system and organization of work than it is by lack of "effort".
  • Even in situations where "lack of effort" is part of the performance landscape, exhortation is more likely to insult employees (since it assumes and communicates to them that they are lazy), than it is to motivate them to greater performance heights.
  • Exhortation to "try harder" is often a lazy manager's approach to performance issues, and lays the honus for better performance at the feet of employees. A more intelligent and respected approach is to THINK and diagnose the real problems, and to remedy those barriers. 

Pitfalls To Watch For

  • Even if the manager succeeds at getting more effort from staff as a result of exhorting them (or threatening them), there is a risk of burnout if it continues over the long haul. Exhortation is simply a terrible long term management strategy.
  • Any motivational "lift" resulting from exhortation and attempts to inspire staff are almost always short lived.

Prescriptions For Avoiding Exhorting To Try Harder Mistakes

  • At best, exhortation to try harder should be used extremely rarely, and should never be used instead of making the effort to identify the real barriers to performance.
  • Exhortation to try harder is most effective (and it's not usually that effective at the best of times), when a) employees are already extremely dedicated and loyal to the manager and the company, and b) when the exhortations tend to the "rally round the flag" inspirational type of message. Exhortation works best in healthy organizations, with already hard-working employees.
  • Exhortation used with unhappy, or otherwise motivationally impaired employees doesn't work. It's better to use a performance management based approach that includes a progressive discipline process.
  • Rely on diagnosing barriers to performance, and addressing and removing those barriers, rather than attempts to "motivate". That's a key role of managers -- finding true causes, and removing them. This involves taking on the managerial responsibility, and avoiding offloading responsibility for poor performance to employees and their "motivation" or lack thereof.
  • If you want more effort and employee engagement and investment, it's better to create that through example, not exhortation. Employees take their cues from management. Lead through example.
  • Employees will work harder, and exhibit more commitment when they feel they are part of the decison-making process, feel consulted and valued, and sense that the manager is on their side. No exhortation will work without these.


If the goal is to increase productivity, then exhortation is a minor, and possibly harmful tactic. It tends to further alienate those employees that are already alienated, does nothing to address the real causes (root causes) of performance inefficiency, and is the tool of the lazy manager.

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Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992. Since then Robert has trained thousands of employees to deal with angry, hostile, abusive and potentially violent customers. He has authored over 20 books on various subjects, many published by McGraw-Hill.


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