The Deadly Half-Dozen
Six Sure Ways to Demotivate Your Best and Brightest
by Brian E. Powers

The corporate excesses of the 90's are gone. Unfortunately, the productivity and retention strategies that focused on workplace freebies and pay incentives are still very much a part of current HR thinking. Who's going to say no to free daycare, a nice cash bonus or a sleek golf shirt?

Trouble is studies show that's just not the kind of stuff from which employee motivation is born. In fact, research data first presented by the noted social researcher Frederick Herzberg in the late 1960s demonstrated that such rewards have little, if any effect, on an employee's commitment to work. Contemporary studies confirm Herzberg's contention. The "workplace as home" approach hatched in hundreds of employee-starved technology firms throughout the last decade has proven unreliable.

There is a growing belief that employees are as disgruntled as ever. One recent national survey found that 92% of the firms polled reported that employee retention is increasing in importance, while 74% said that turnover had risen or remained the same during the nation's two-year economic slump. So much for the idea that even the best workers are sitting tight until the economy gets better.

Compounding the motivation dilemma is the wrenching instability created by the seemingly endless barrage of workforce reductions. So what's a business or organization to do?

First of all, if you have reason to believe that motivation is or is becoming an issue in your work environment, don't look for external solutions. Instead, chances are you'll find critical employee issues are actually resulting from a host of internal management practices that are throttling your best and brightest. We've isolated some of the worst of these; we call them "The Deadly Half-Dozen" or "Six Sure Ways to Demotivate Your Best and Brightest." If many of these are occurring in your workplace, motivational issues are sure to follow, regardless of the perks you have thrown at your employees.

Demotivator #1
Make it impossible for top employees to succeed by overloading them with responsibility.

A study recently released by the American Management Association found that 76% of professionals surveyed said they had more responsibility than a year ago, while 65% said their workload has increased. But more responsibility doesn't necessarily translate to personal growth and job satisfaction. In fact, if the additional responsibility results from workforce reductions or unreasonable management expectations, the best and brightest will view the additional responsibility as exploitation. Good workers want variety in their jobs. They want to feel a sense of accomplishment. They shouldn't be made to think that job success only comes with taking on every new task or project they're asked to accept regardless of how thinly stretched they are.

Demotivator #2
Keep employees focused on the bureaucracy of their jobs so they begin to feel that work is meaningless.

There's nothing more frustrating, when you clearly see the big picture, than to have someone insist that every decision must be preapproved in triplicate. In too many workplaces, the myth of empowerment is one of the greater fantasies. Loosen up the bureaucracy and grant freedom to those who earn it.

Demotivator #3
Create and foster confusion about roles on specific projects and with the company in general.

The best and the brightest want to attack assignments with intellectual vigor and decisiveness. And they want to know how important the project is in relation to the company's overall mission, marketing strategy, sales objectives or operational focus. They want limits defined and specific responsibilities detailed. To do anything less as a manager foments the worst kind of job dissatisfaction: confusion. And in a somewhat shocking reversal of what we were led to believe throughout the 90s, confusion and unhappiness often prevail. The Bureau of Labor Statistics claims that 87% of American workers don't really enjoy their jobs.

Demotivator #4
Limit resources available to get the job done, then micromanage efforts at employing these inadequate resources.

Any good employee will willingly bite the budget reduction bullet in the spirit of cooperation, as long as the belt tightening hasn't been done arbitrarily and with obvious disregard for cost realities. But top performers expect that you have faith in their ability to manage and move forward within the confining limits of a tight budget. To question expenditures on a routine basis is like saying, "I don't trust you to manage our money." The strongest workers are simply not going to find that kind of situation acceptable.

Demotivator #5
Keep changing goals and objectives so that they can't possibly be accomplished.

Any employee worth the paper his/her check is written on is goal driven on both a personal and business level. Each goal accomplished at work is another message that life is good, that work is satisfying. Take that away by constantly changing, rearranging or eliminating previously stated objectives and you begin to dismantle the psyche of a goal-driven employee.

Demotivator #6
Throw money at anyone who utters a complaint about job satisfaction.

The best and the brightest aren't complainers or whiners. They are generally fixers and doers. When they get to the point that they think their only recourse is to complain, you had better listen. Too many managers believe in the money myth, that pay raises and bonuses are what motivate most workers. Money is not the #1 issue with most employees, unless they sense that somehow the company is being unfair. In fact, the National Opinion Research Center's General Social Survey of 2000 showed pay ranking well below work and job satisfaction when workers were asked to rank the most important job factors. Most employees, especially top performers, want the kind of job satisfaction that comes with opportunities for growth, and genuine appreciation for a job well done. In fact, exit interviews demonstrate that most high performers leave their jobs for a variety of reasons other than better pay.

Our Conclusion

Eliminate these "demotivators" before you start planning so-called "motivational" perks. Free coffee and donuts and natural fruit juice in the cafeteria are pleasant, but they're like bubble gum in a major league baseball dugout. Players appreciate the free Double Bubble but it has nothing to do with motivating them to hit an inside fastball thrown at 98 miles an hour. The hit, well, that's the result of hard work and good coaching. For the batter it's also the ultimate in job satisfaction.

Brian E. Powers is President and Chief Executive Officer of BakerER, a strategic growth and workplace management consulting firm. Whether in the marketplace or workplace, our promise is simple: we help organizations that compete on the basis or their relationships to be the “best choice” for their customers and employees. The end result: sustainable, profitable growth for the organization.

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