Business owners often tell me that their employees don’t show motivation, ask for too much, or just don’t get on board with their ideas for how to help the company make more money.

Knowing how human beings function at work can be helpful in understanding this. In the service of that goal, I’m going to explain three things that can help make the interpersonal piece or leadership feel more real and practical. They are: the role of leader trustworthiness, understanding different perceptions of ownership, and the importance of setting boundaries throughout as well as at each phase of the employee’s job comfort level.


First things first. Your relationship with your employees is key to their behaviour. If you want employees to be trustworthy, you have to be a trustworthy leader. Trustworthy leaders have these characteristics:

  • Do what they say they will do – consistently
  • Under promise, over deliver
  • Show real interest in their employees
  • Speak to people, ask questions and listen
  • Say what they will do with the feedback when they ask for it
  • Don’t change their mind all the time on what the priorities are – and when they do, have a clear explanation of what employees can put aside to be able to focus on the priority
  • Show respect for the process other people have to do to get the job done. This happens by asking people about their jobs, what matters to them, and what recommendations they have for making improvements
  • Respect employee’s time by not calling too many or unnecessary meetings
  • Come prepared to meetings and have clear goals and objectives, action items and follow up

If you can’t check off at least five of these boxes, why should employees trust you? Human nature in an untrustworthy situation is to take what you can get and run. Because so many employers are not trustworthy, it takes time for employees to believe you could be different. Even if you can be certain you are trustworthy, don’t expect miracles right from the outset. Trust takes time, needs proofs, must be maintained and requires mending.


Second, it is important to realize that owners and upper level managers have a different sense of ownership than employees do. When you are the owner, everything affects you and your bottom line. Most employees do not see a direct connection from their actions to their salary or from the business benefits to their benefits. Employers may not see it either.

The way to make that direct line visible is to ask why you hire for each position. Each job should solve a specific problem. When it does, and you have hired right, the person in that role is motivated to do the job and focused on solving the problem you hired them to solve.

For example if you hire someone to solve a quality assurance problem and the QA person knows what quality issue (or cluster of issues) needs to be solved, why, and what solving it will do for the business, then there is a clear line showing how the job affects the bottom line, and what success will do for the employee and the employer.

Part of understanding the ownership topic is that employees know that if they leave, the company or organization will likely continue to exist, whereas when you own or manage the company, you do not have that assurance. Share on X

Ownership anxiety over fear of loss of revenue does not create a climate for employee motivation. Trying to understand employee’s jobs better and discussing what actions would create the best results, lowers owner anxiety and gives employees a sense of “ownership” over the end result.

more compassionate to employees

Boundaries throughout

Third, to get employees to do their best, assuming you have already taken care of trustworthiness and understand ownership perspectives, people need clear boundaries. Boundaries are different at different parts of the employment journey and require an awareness of those differences to be effective.

  • At the beginning, employees want to know what they are supposed to do, when, where and with whom. They want to know what equipment to use and how to access it, what to do with it when they finish using it. They need to know who to report to, what “done” looks like, and where they are in the entire process. And of course, they want to know how and when they will be paid, how much and if anything will affect their salary.
  • When employees are comfortable in the job, they have different boundary needs. Typically you will see interpersonal issues, communication problems and accountability considerations at this phase. Relationships need to secured, benefits and consequences explained, parameters clarified and exceptions clarified. Encouragement and challenges at the right times are critical.
  • After this middle phase has more settled boundaries, employees are interested in long term questions, such as ongoing training, opportunities for advancement, salary grid changes and having a future with the company – or elsewhere.

At each of these phases of employment, managers and employers can cause misunderstandings if they are not clear about what they expect and where the “too far” line is on either side. My favorite example of this involves food.

I can’t count how many employees have complained that for some reason the management would send everyone a memo that there was a special lunch provided – with no explanation why. Employees are confused by this – is it a celebration? A reward? A “just because moment”?

With this confusion comes lack of appreciation and potentially entitlement. Explain why there is a surprise lunch and what would cause it to happen again, so they are not unclear about the reason behind it.

The same goes for birthdays. Randomly providing a cake or even recognizing someone’s birthday during a virtual meeting, sets the expectation for everyone’s birthday to be recognized – so make sure you have a birthday recognition plan in place to avoid confusion over boundaries.

Another example of ongoing boundary setting is the perception of favoritism. Nothing creates demotivation, entitlement, and backbiting like favoritism. Maybe you are just picking the same guy for projects or overtime hours because you know you can rely on him.

But if you don’t explain to the rest of the team what they need to do, (or be – make sure this is fair and attainable) so they can get the same opportunity, expect it all to end badly.

My final example for clarity of boundaries is having the courage to do the hard things. One pitfall that comes to mind is the courage to enforce a policy of “one late – excused, second late – warning and third late – discipline”.

Many managers think their “niceness” and “likability” factor will go down if they follow the rules. In fact, they will get more respect because they showed consistency, less when they are inconsistent or simply weak in their… Share on X

Enforcement does not have to be mean or disrespectful, and it happens more easily when there are clear expectations and boundaries. Ensure that the team knows the policy, say it, put it up somewhere clear, have it in virtual communications and remember that just because you say something once doesn’t mean other people hear or remember it.

Multiple communication channels are required and need to be consistently reinforced to see a sustained change in behavior and eventually company culture. You may need to remind the individuals, and speak one on one to someone who seems to have an issue.

But do it the first or second time it happens, not the 10th or 20th time. You will be amazed at how much more engagement and respect you get when you call up your courage and do the hard thing.


The reason employees don’t show much excitement to meet your goals is likely because you have a lack of clarity in one of the three areas of this post: trustworthiness, ownership or boundary setting.

Trustworthiness is consistently proving you are worth following. Ownership perception is understanding that employees and employers have different goals but when you engage with employees in what it takes for them to do their jobs, you increase their ownership in the process. Boundary setting is an ongoing process of clarifying expectations and making small adjustments along the way.

It has different requirements at different places of the employee journey, but requires regular upkeep to ensure everyone is on the same page.

About the Author

Dr. Marie Gervais is the author of “The Spirit of Work: Timeless Wisdom, Current Realities”. She holds a PhD in Culture and Learning in the Workplace. Through her work in leadership training, she has coached more than 500 supervisors, managers and business owners for career and business success. She hosts the Culture and Leadership Connections podcast, which features interviews with diverse leaders in a variety of professions. Her publications span industry and academic journals on topics including the future of work, workplace communication, productivity and psychological safety in the workplace. Her online courses and products are used by managers and career developers around the world.

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