Stop Demotivating Me!

Organizational systems, policies and management actions actively demotivate people. How many of these business practices are you foisting on your own staff?

By Esther Derby
Wed, July 11, 2007

CIO — It never fails. Every time I give a talk on management, someone asks, "How can I motivate my staff?"

Managers hold pizza parties, deliver pep talks and hand out trinkets to boost motivation. And it's all for naught.

Most people show up for a new job with high motivation. They're excited and they want to do a good job. But as the weeks pass, motivation dribbles away. It's not because managers are failing to motivate these once-enthusiastic people. It's because organizational systems, policies-and yes, management actions-actively demotivate people.

How can a manager demotivate employees? Let me count the ways.

The Demotivator's Hall of Shame
Surprises at the annual employee review. Most people believe that annual reviews and evaluations improve performance. But people need to know where they stand and what they can do to improve all year, not just at review time. When managers wait until the review cycle to communicate the need to improve, staffers feel set up. When the manager says he wants them to succeed, they wonder if he really means it. Not very motivating.

Micromanagement. Most people desire some measure of autonomy at work. Micromanagement—dictating each detail of how a task should be done—deprives people of autonomy. It communicates that the manager believes people are incompetent and incapable of making judgments. The worst form of micromanagement is telling people how to do a task without telling them why the task matters.

Public criticism. If you must criticize, do it in private. "Public" includes yelling so loudly that the entire staff can hear even when the office door is closed. A public dressing-down is a sure demotivator. And it doesn't affect just the individual; it affects everyone who witnesses the event.

Asking for one behavior and rewarding another. One of my early managers proclaimed that a stable production environment was our first priority when we made changes to the software we worked on. But I soon noticed that the people who received praise and promotions were not the ones who were methodical about testing their code. The rewards went to the developers who found and fixed crash bugs in the middle of the night—usually crash bugs that they themselves had created. The steady Eddies of the group worked unnoticed-or started inserting a few bugs themselves to gain the limelight.

Unachievable deadlines. Many managers seem to believe that without a deadline, people will dilly-dally and waste time. They profess that the work will expand to take all the available time, and that people (usually referred to as "workers" when this logic is applied) must be pushed to produce. Most people will bust their butts to meet a challenging deadline-as long as they believe there's a reasonable chance of making it. But give them a deadline they believe is impossible, and motivation drains away.

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