The best motivation is to not demotivate

By May 28, 2010Strategy

As a business leader you should focus on how to not demotivate your team rather than how to motivate your team.

Most leaders would agree that identifying what motivates all the diverse members of a staff is complicated and confusing. Motivating a group is even harder than motivating an individual. When you lead a team, there’s an entirely different dynamic. What you do for one employee can easily demotivate others.

I know of a large company that has an employee recognition program that involves publishing a list each year of employees who have been promoted to vice president. Only a few senior executives know the criteria for inclusion on the coveted list. The few employees with new VP job titles are, of course, pleased. But hundreds of others who feel they should have been recognized are displeased. They don’t know why they were overlooked and why colleagues they may believe are of less value to the company were recognized. So the program benefits only a few and provokes uncertainty, frustration and a perception of disrespect in many.

That’s a powerful and lasting demotivator. The intention is admirable–recognizing outstanding employees–but the program, at least the way it is executed, does more harm than good. The company should get rid of it and its demotivating effect on the workplace.

When leaders decide to address demotivation, they quickly see that, unlike with motivation, it’s essentially the same for every employee. You can be certain, for example, that everyone on your staff wants the following from you and always will: (1) clear direction, (2) the resources to perform as required and (3) never to be treated disrespectfully. A work environment structured to provide those three things is also exactly what shareholders want and expect. Deliver them, and you will be on your way to leadership greatness. Fail to do so, and you may be an adequate leader but you’ll never be a great one.

There are, in sum, two key steps to staying on top of motivation and demotivation.

First, hire and keep on your team only people who are motivated to do their jobs well. As Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, says, “Get the right people on the bus.”

Second, understand that if they become demotivated, it is because of the environment in which they work. Strong and courageous leaders recognize that such an environment is their own failure. Understanding that can prevent you from misdirecting resources into unnecessary efforts to motivate staff.

We need a new leadership paradigm for the 21st century, with leaders taking a more realistic and enlightened view of the people who work for them. We need to create and maintain work environments that protect employees from the demotivation that has become common in business.