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Posted: November 22, 2013
Sally Helgesen

Sally Helgesen is an author, speaker, and leadership development consultant, whose most recent book is The Female Vision: Women’s Real Power at Work (with Julie Johnson; Berrett-Koehler, 2010).

 


 
 

The Three Habits of Highly Effective Demotivators

Jake, a young marketing whiz, thought he’d found his perfect match in a well-funded technology startup in the academic sector. (It’s a real company, but I’ve changed all names.) For the first few months, Jake was in heaven: smart colleagues, plenty of autonomy, an open field of savvy customers looking for solutions in a hot sector, behind-the-curve competitors, and a terrific product he could sell with his heart.

The only problem was Lawrence, the startup’s CEO. Lawrence was brilliant, no doubt about it, and great when it came to dazzling the venture crowd. He’d step into a roomful of funders, deliver the gospel as he saw it, paint a thrilling picture of the company’s future, and walk away with bulging pockets.

But among his super-talented employees, most of whom had joined the company because they felt inspired by the service the company offered, Lawrence was known mostly as the “DM.” As in, “The DM’s in the building.” As in, “I’m psyched, but let’s see how the DM spins it.” Those initials? They stand for the demotivator.

It didn’t take Jake long to recognize that Lawrence had an uncanny ability for knocking the wind out of the sails of even the most enthusiastic contributor, a positive genius for turning eager beavers into disheartened slogs. A few moments in his presence were enough to sow doubt where there had been clarity of purpose, depress energy where it abounded, undercut confidence, and instill frustration. As Jake noted, Lawrence had an artist’s touch when it came to disheartening people.

Hearing Jake’s stories, I decided to interview a few people other people in the company to see what lessons a world-class demotivator might have to teach. I talked to Jake’s colleague Cassie, a stellar client relationship manager with a rosy future (likely somewhere else), and to Lee, the IT hotshot Lawrence had enticed away from one of the world’s great tech innovators because Lee loved the idea of supporting education.

Digging down into the experiences of these committed and naturally motivated individuals enabled me to come up with a few tried and true rules for sucking the energy and life out of other people at work. If you seek to undermine your employees—or people in your division or your unit––these three practices will help guarantee your success.

First, great demotivators always tell people how to do things they are already doing— especially if they are doing those things well.

This is a kind of two-fer in the demotivation sweepstakes in that it accomplishes two essential tasks at once. On one hand, it makes clear to your employees that you actually have no idea about the scope or nature of their contributions. This is bound to make them feel that all their efforts are in vain, the psychological sweet spot for which all dedicated demotivators aim.

At the same time, your maneuver sets you up nicely to take credit for your employees’ achievements when they bear fruit. Since you told them what to do, their future success in doing it may then be claimed as a result of your timely intervention.

Second, great demotivators make sure that any humiliation they inflict occurs in public, preferably before an audience that the employee really cares about.

Great demotivators make sure that any humiliation they inflict occurs in public. 

Cassie described Lawrence’s mastery of this essential technique. “Whenever I bring clients into meetings––and that’s a big part of my job––I’m always totally on edge. That’s because I’m waiting for Lawrence to come up with some fresh way of making me look like a complete jerk. Just last week I brought reps from a new online learning service in Scandinavia in for a demo of one of our coolest tools. They were loving it when Lawrence piped up, “And here Cassie was convinced you wouldn’t understand this technology!”

Third, great demotivators are connoisseurs of surprise.

Lee, the brains behind Lawrence’s IT program, noted that his boss has a gift for spreading confusion about what’s really going on. For example, Lee has more than once invited a client to meet to discuss a strategy, only to find that Lawrence has already talked to them without letting him know.

As with many demotivators, Lawrence has a ready explanation for his behavior: “We’re moving at warp speed, we don’t have time to worry about who gets credit or who talks to who.” And because the company is growing rapidly, this explanation makes sense to recent hires whose enthusiasm has yet to collapse under the weight of their boss’s efforts to make them feel hopeless. But after a few months in the company, people start to catch on that taking a great product to market is agony if you don’t have support.

Lawrence reminds me of a boss I had in my days as a speechwriter who churned through talent at an alarming rate. One day, after ranting about how great our service was, he turned to me in all seriousness and said, “We’d be a great company if it weren’t for our people.”

I’d like to hear from you. Do you have a bad-boss horror story? Have you ever worked for a demotivator like Lawrence? If so, drop me a line to tell me about the experience, how you handled it, and whether you stuck around.
 

 

 

 
 
 
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