Workplace Culture

The real causes of manager disengagement

By William Taylor

Apr. 24, 2023


  • The causes of disengagement differ for managers and frontline staff.

  • Autonomy, mastery, and purpose are at the heart of managerial engagement.

  • The easiest way to improve manager engagement is to remove friction rather than start new engagement programs.

Almost all manager engagement programs won’t work. It’s not because the programs themselves are bad; rather, it’s because they are based on the assumption that the causes of manager disengagement are the same as front-line staff – like how you’re not actually bad at basketball when you keep missing the shots at a carnival.

a person playing a basketball hoop carnival game
While the hoops at a carnival appear the same at first glance, they’re not exactly regulation dimensions (see below).

real hoop size

What you need to do is adjust your approach. If we’re still talking about winning the carnival prize, then you’re better off not playing or looking online. Unfortunately, choosing to ignore manager disengagement is a bad strategy, although you can also find help online too.

The fundamentals between manager disengagement and front-line employee disengagement stem from what motivates each. For front-line staff, the primary driver of motivation often comes from extrinsic motivators, such as compensation or piece-rate bonuses/tips. While these are also important for managers, it’s not what primarily motivates and keeps them engaged.

Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us explores this in depth. To save you time, it shows that managers are motivated by intrinsic factors. What it practically means is that they are motivated by having autonomy, mastery, and purpose in their role. And when you have a manager that is disengaged, and you dig to the root cause, it’s going to be one of these factors.


Autonomy for managers is the extent to which they are able to make decisions without approval. 

It includes both explicit approvals (e.g. a policy requiring managers to get sign-off), as well as implicit approvals (e.g. there’s no policy, but the manager feels like they need to show their manager first). Implicit approvals are the most dangerous because if it were a risk the company should already have a formal approval process. This means it’s probably not a major risk for the manager to make the decision themselves, but they are paralyzed to make the call. 

How do you identify if a manager doesn’t have enough autonomy?

If you see a manager constantly asking for permission, they believe they need implicit approval and don’t have autonomy. The other side is when there are too many formal approval processes that impede great managers from making the best decisions. Whether you have the right balance between internal controls and manager autonomy is its own topic. However, one early sign is managers becoming hyper-agreeable and passive because they don’t feel like they can contribute new ideas. This will manifest as an increased turnover of high-quality managers. 

How do you give managers more autonomy without creating anarchy?

The first step starts with who you hire and promote as managers. When you have great managers, they make great decisions, not anarchy. When you’re not confident in your managers’ ability, it causes you to add in approval processes as guard rails to prevent bad decision-making. Hiring and promoting the right people creates a loop of needing less process, creating more engaged managers and better business outcomes.

Secondly, many businesses suffer from a culture of implicit approvals because they focus on tasks instead of outcomes or projects. Focusing on small tasks creates an environment that requires constant checking in for the next tasks and entrenches the implicit approval approach. 

The better way to manage workload is to assign outcomes (e.g. customer satisfaction, sales per labor hour, revenue), or specific projects (e.g. creating a summer menu, running a promotional event, etc.) So how do you deal with specific tasks that still need to get done?

You can keep task management simple by creating lists of tasks that you can regularly check on for completion. This way, you can see that work is getting done without constantly having to micromanage managers.


Mastery is the continual pursuit of becoming the best at your role or a skill within it.

It’s what turns a job into a calling. Managers find meaning in becoming the best at what they do, which helps to insulate their engagement levels from fluctuating environmental factors (e.g. strategy changes, layoffs, new management). It also has the added benefit of making them more effective and productive in their role.

What are the signs that managers lack the ability to master their role?

A major sign is that there is little or no investment from the company in skills development and training of their workforce. This flags to managers that senior management doesn’t care to invest in their development. Usually based on the belief that training and development yields little ROI – it’s actually the opposite.

Another sign, albeit unconventional, is when the organizational structure creates layers of general managers instead of functional leadership. It stems from the idea that those that have the most expertise within a domain should be the ones making the decisions. Experts leading other experts. This gives the opportunity for managers to learn and be mentored, as well as promote a culture of excellence within a function. 

When a company relies more heavily on general managers, they have to hire managers that are functional experts that know more in their domain. It means these managers don’t have someone more senior to learn from. X is then prioritized over domain excellence and dilutes the mastery culture that thrives in functional leadership structures.

How do you create a culture that fosters managers to master their craft?

Before updating training and development programs, you need to know what skills each team and individual should focus on improving. Conduct a skills gap analysis to identify these skill deficiencies, and then you can start to develop a training program.

The effectiveness of these training programs is also much more likely to be successful when you can lean on functional leadership that has a deep understanding of how to train and improve it. That’s why you should consider whether you have an organizational structure that has senior management with functional expertise.

It then also enables you to run mentoring programs for managers so they have support to master their roles.

Finally, culture is partly a sum of who you promote and recognize. If you have managers that simply want to coast and show no interest in improving, then you need to consider whether they are right for your company.


Purpose is how a manager can see how their role improves their company, customers, and society. 

It’s what helps them persevere through the parts of the job they don’t like without being worn out. Managers that don’t have a purpose will still have to do this tedious work, but it will grind them down and make them disillusioned with their role.

What are the signs that a manager lacks purpose?

The most immediate sign is that the company itself cannot articulate its purpose. Whether by not having an overarching purpose or having a meaningless purpose. Most of these companies see their purpose as making a profit and don’t see the need to have a bigger vision. Don’t get me wrong, making a profit is probably the most important thing a company needs to do; otherwise, they’ll go out of business. But if they want to keep their best staff and get them to consistently perform at a high level, then they need to motivate them through purpose.

Secondly, a telltale sign of managers lacking purpose is when they believe their role doesn’t add value. It’s often caused when they are a first-time manager transitioning from being an individual contributor where it’s easy for them to define their output, to an overseeing role where they are coordinating and not directly producing tangible output themselves.

Finally, a manager looking for the next opportunity is potentially a sign that they don’t have a purpose in their current role – particularly when they are looking to do a different role within the company or asking to transfer teams. This is a flag that, while they may align with the company’s overall purpose, their values may not align with their individual role’s purpose. 

How do you give managers purpose in their role?

This is probably the hardest of the three parts of motivation to actively change. Many aspects of finding purpose for managers are dependent on their outlook on life. That being said, there are some important things you should get right.

Ensure that your company has an overarching purpose that makes the world a better place. It doesn’t have to be revolutionary like going to Mars. A restaurant could simply have the purpose of serving affordable food for parents short on time. What you need to avoid is having a purpose so vague that it doesn’t convey anything. UKG has taken this to the extreme with their “people is our purpose” slogan. It’s super vague, could apply to most businesses, and your managers will be able to detect the bullshit a mile away. Try to do the opposite of UKG.

Next, you should help managers link how their role helps to achieve business outcomes, particularly when they don’t have a direct output like an individual contributor. They are taking responsibility for the work of their team, so make sure they get some credit for the good work that their team achieves.

Lastly, check that they actually want to do their role. Sometimes everything else can be in place, yet the managers still aren’t satisfied. If they fundamentally don’t enjoy or see purpose in their role, it may be best to see what opportunities exist for them to move into another role.

How to increase manager engagement

The easiest way to improve manager engagement is to remove friction rather than add new engagement programs. For managers, this means removing obstacles to autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These include:

  • Autonomy
    • Hiring managers that you trust and are capable of being autonomous, removing the ones that aren’t.
    • Setting outcomes and projects for managers, as well as automating task management and completion checking.
  • Mastery
    • Conduct a skills gap analysis to see what needs to be focused on in training and development.
    • Ensure managers have senior management with functional expertise that they can be mentored by.
    • Move on from managers that aren’t interested in self-improvement.
  • Purpose
    • Ensure the company has an overarching purpose that’s specific and makes a positive impact on the world.
    • Show managers how their role, even though indirect, has an important impact on the company’s success.
    • Check if they are passionate about the role, and if not, see if there are other roles they could move into.

Know that whatever you implement needs to take into consideration the fact that every manager is motivated and engaged by different things. Make sure your approach isn’t a blanket one.

Final thoughts

Focusing on compensation or pizza parties is not a good idea if you’re having challenges with manager engagement. The cost of disengaged managers is simply too high for a business to sustain in the long term.

You need to hone in on the extrinsic motivators of autonomy, mastery, and purpose to stand a chance of turning the tide. Be prepared to make bets on different HR policies, have difficult conversations with senior management, and leverage technology that helps increase engagement.

If you are interested in learning more about improving manager engagement, check out our webinar below:

Webinar: How to Increase Manager Engagement & Retention

William Taylor is a VP at with 7 years of experience helping major companies develop better workforce management and HR practices. He majored in HR and completed a postgraduate law degree.

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