How To Demotivate Employees (If You Really Want To)

This article with video from 'Good To Great' author Jim Collins identifies three primary employee demotivators. Actually, he doesn't limit them to employees but rightly says they are inflicted on people in many forums. Parents especially are noted as perpetrators. Those three demotivators are:

  • hype
  • futurism and
  • false democracy.

There may be others but these three are good ways to put out the fires that might be burning inside people you have who are already inherently motivated. Crazy. You'd think that employers would want to not do that, yet I see an awful lot of hype, futurism and false democracy in a lot of workplaces. All of it is well-intentioned. In one of my previous management roles where I was a significant agent of change, I had a little personal catchphrase, "No fireworks, no bugles." What I was trying to reinforce to myself and to others was my own anti-hype position. I really did not want to overpromise. I'd learned from being on the receiving end of too many projects or ideas that were going to magically transform everything into a wonderland of worker amenity and prosperity. Never quite panned out quite as wonderlandy as they painted it. Few things do. Honestly, I'm not anti-hype. It has its place. Used in short bursts at appropriate times, it can generate heat, energy, attention, focus and movement. My problem is that, often, the hype is all there is. In fact, isn't that the meaning most of us apply when we see, hear or use the word? Too much hype. Nothing but hype. Over-hyped. Don't believe the hype. What must follow hype to avoid demotivation is prompt and positive change of meaningful substance.

Workplace examples of death by overhyping I've seen have included introductions of performance management systems and departmental restructures. That said, I've also been involved in introductions of performance management systems and departmental restructures that were highly successful, well received and used hype, to some extent, very well. So, I'd disagree with Collins if he means that all hype is bad. I suspect he doesn't mean that. I believe he means the hyperbole that isn't followed up with action of substance. Far better to, as he says in the video, " confront the brutal facts."



How is futurism bad? I thought we were all meant to be planning for the future, setting goals, anticipating and pre-solving problems etc? Once again, Collins isn't slamming all futurism, merely those bosses who focus on nothing but the future with little or zero emphasis on the now or recent history. Those bosses can't learn from mistakes, can't celebrate successes and can't leverage employees 'in the zone' or in 'a state of flow.' These high performers don't ignore the future but when they're at their most productive, they are very much solely in the now. Bosses who break that focus and drift off over the rainbow are counter-productive.

Collins says to show results as an indication of progress, to show that people are part of something that is actually working. He refers to this as 'clicks on the flywheel.' (I get what he's saying but will admit to having to go look up what a flywheel is - a heavy disk or wheel rotating on a shaft so that its momentum gives almost uniform rotational speed to the shaft and to all connected machinery. I'm pedantic enough to argue that change never happens at a 'uniform rotational speed' and I don't even like the metaphor's 'rotational' representation of change. But I still get it and love the whole point of it which was the benefits of showing progress and being part of something that works!)

False democracy is a label for all the actions by those employers who have already made up their mind but would like to paint over their intentions with a thin veneer of dishonest inclusiveness by engaging in some token campaign of capturing ideas and inputs from the team. Not that anything ever amounts from these campaigns. This is worse than just being a blatant autocracy. At least that's honest and transparent. Sometimes even well-meaning managers will engage in such a campaign even though the system of their workplace is so rigid and unresponsive that actual democracy is unlikely. That might be worse as it raises false hope?

Doctors have their oath and the first part is about at the very least not doing harm. Leaders, when it comes to motivating their people, could, at the very least, take that page out of the doctors' book. (Don't take a page out of their prescription pad though. You'll never read their handwriting!)