by Meridith Levinson

Holiday Gifts from Bad Bosses

Jan 03, 20123 mins
CareersIT Leadership

A holiday gift from a bad boss that aims to motivate staff ends up doing the opposite.

Imagine you received the following holiday gift from your boss:

The Little Engine That Could

Yes, that’s a copy of the children’s classic, The Little Engine That Could.

How would you react if you received a copy of this book from your boss? Would it inspire you to work harder in the new year, or would you find it completely and utterly condescending? 

I recently learned that a retail company vice president gave each of the employees in his department a copy of The Little Engine That Could as a holiday gift. Perhaps he thought this was a clever way to send a motivational message to his corporate staff, clichéd as it was. 

The vice president’s gesture, I was told by a former employee of the company, largely backfired. In fact, it seems to have had the opposite effect on many employees. Rather than inspiring them to dig deep inside themselves and meet big challenges, the book was dismissed as a trite token from an insensitive executive who’s out of touch with how hard they’re working. In this case, The Little Engine That Could didn’t. 

The reason The Little Engine That Could stalled as a holiday gift is because many of the employees (some of whom I know) are already pushing full steam ahead. They are not the “little engines” who think they can, who think they can. They are the “little engines” that know they can—and do. They also know that if they push any harder, they’ll explode. 

Based on what I’ve been told about this vice president, it seems his M.O. is to pile as much work on employees as they can possibly take. He seems to relish pushing people straight to the edge of their capabilities—and their sanity. (Perhaps he has delusions of being Jack Welch?) In any case, at least one employee was pushed too far and had to take a stress-related leave of absence this past fall. Others are fleeing the company.  

If I were to conclude this blog with a lesson, just as The Little Engine That Could contains a lesson about persistence, it would be directed at managers who may be tempted to employ similarly ill-conceived management and motivational tactics. And it might read, “If you want your employees to act like adults, don’t treat them like children.” But that lesson would be as trite as the VP’s holiday gift.

The real lesson for managers, I suppose, is to carefully consider any effort to motivate your staff: Will it truly encourage them, or will it alienate them? Chances are, if your staff needs to be motivated, their morale is probably already low, and you could exacerbate those issues if you take the wrong approach. 

The problem with lessons is that they’re often lost on the people who need them the most, such as bad bosses and the retail company VP.