by Esther Derby

Stop Demotivating Me!

Jul 11, 20077 mins
IT Leadership

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

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.

Asking for input and then ignoring it. A manager asked the developers on his team to estimate a how long it would take to complete a project. The manager didn’t like the estimate the team produced. “I’ve met rookie programmers who could work faster than this,” the manager declared as he slashed the estimate by half. “Why did he waste our time?” one developer wondered. This team had a triple whammy: an unachievable timeline, a manager who dismissed their professional judgment, and a manager who berated them in public. They weren’t motivated to meet the manager’s aggressive timeline (but they were motivated to prove his timeline wrong).

Preferential treatment. Managers don’t need to treat everyone equally; they do need to treat everyone equitably. Singling out employees for differential treatment (good or bad) telegraphs that honest hard work isn’t the path to recognition. A few people may be motivated to “brown nose”; the rest will be turned off.

Empty phrases. It seems like there’s an unending supply of (supposedly) inspirational directives: Just do it! Failure is not an option! Think outside the box! There may be situations where these phrases actually help, though I’m challenged to think of any. When managers meet legitimate concerns with empty phrases, it communicates that the manager a) doesn’t understand the issue and/or b) doesn’t have a clue what to do. Plus there’s a bonus effect: People who believe their manager will dismiss their concerns out of hand don’t stop having problems, they just stop telling their manager about them.

In addition to bad management, organizational procedures and systems can also sap motivation. Most companies acknowledge on some level that people are important to producing results. Yet organizational systems and policies may communicate the opposite message.

People are expendable. When reducing costs means cutting employees, the message is that people aren’t an asset to invest in; people are “labor costs.”

Some people are more valued than others. Forced ranking and rating on a curve are supposed to help improve performance. But the message is clear: The company values the people at the top of the ranking, and the people on the bottom know they are candidates for the next layoff. And the rest? The people in the middle may stay on, in undesirable assignments, as the demotivated majority.

Employees are not trustworthy. I once worked for a company where two people in a department of 800 abused the company policy on cab fare reimbursement. After the incident was discovered, the VP decreed that she had to personally approve all reimbursement requests over $5. Her policy effectively communicated her belief that no one in the organization was trustworthy.

Employees aren’t capable of making good decisions. Layers of signatures, long lead times for standard items, and lag times for signatures and approvals not only slow down work and frustrate people—they communicate that people aren’t capable of making reasonable decisions.

Creating an Environment for Success

Even against these odds, a manager can create an environment that maintains motivation and mitigate some negative effects of organizational demotivators.

Here are six things every manager can do to create a local climate that supports natural motivation:

Articulate the group’s mission. Make sure people know the purpose of their work and how it fits into the overall mission of the company. Instill an understanding of how the group’s work affects the bottom line of the company. Knowing the big picture enables people to make better decisions, and means you, as manager, don’t need to be the decision bottleneck.

Recognize and appreciate contributions. Notice that I didn’t say “Implement a rewards and recognition program.” Those programs backfire as often as not. I’m talking about direct conversations with individuals that show that you, as a manager, notice and appreciate the contributions people make.

Provide clear, congruent feedback. People want to do a good job, and sometimes they need information to fine-tune performance. Rather than evaluate, describe behavior, or results, explain the impact and engage in problem solving. Providing information that helps people improve also helps them know you want them to succeed.

Deal firmly and respectfully with performance issues. Most people want to do a good job, and sometimes people don’t have the skills (including interpersonal skills) to be successful. Don’t let the situation drag on and on or protect one person at the expense of the group.

Eliminate obstacles and be an advocate for the group. When your organization throws up roadblocks, help knock them down-or at least find a way around them for the group. Nothing is more demotivating than a manager who insists that employees meet deadlines but does nothing to help them with organizational issues.

Share company data. Disclose as much as you can (of course respecting confidential personnel matters) about company financial results, decisions and strategies. Even saying you don’t know is preferable to saying nothing, especially during times of upheaval. Spreading knowledge spreads power.

Pep talks, speakers, posters, forced fun, and prizes are the stock and trade of companies that specialize in employee motivation. Although they may provide a temporary bump in morale (one that may even last a few hours longer than the rah-rah meeting), they won’t overcome the underlying problems. Real motivation comes from pride in work, fair treatment and trust.