News & Insight
July 2014

De-Motivation Par Excellence: Learning from the Nightmare Boss

Sally*, the keynote speaker, told a personal story that hit a nerve. Everyone cringed. It wasn’t even on her main topic. But this is what I walked away thinking about, and am pondering still.

Sally told us a story about a manager (I’ll call him Bert) whose special talent was “demotivation.” This particular manager displayed truly impressive skills in his ability to discourage, deject, even emotionally eviscerate, his own employees. Bert was consistent, thorough, and reliable in his techniques, leaving a trail of comatose bodies and vacant office chairs in his wake.

The Case of an Extreme De-Motivator: Bert

What, might you ask, did Bert do to demotivate his staff so astonishingly?

1. First, Bert would laboriously instruct his employees on how to perform tasks that they already knew how to do (very well.)

2. Bert would then, randomly but great intensity, pop up unexpectedly, to check on the effort’s progress and performance, to the minutest degree. No detail was too small to be unearthed, and criticized.

3. When the effort was completed, Bert would then take credit for his employees’ success to others. After all, wasn’t the success due to Bert’s original instructions, and careful oversight?

4. Bert was also a master of surprise. In other words, he always withheld information until well past critical deadlines. He did his best to ensure that his employees were completely blind-sided. At every opportunity.

5. To complete his skills as a master of demotivation, Bert would publicly humiliate his employees. He used a variety of creative methods to achieve this aim. For example, during in-person meetings, at group events, and in multi-addressed emails, Bert chastised his employees for lacking foresight, competence, ability and/or intelligence.

Impressive, right?

Of course not. Only in its abusiveness. However, this whole scary tale started me questioning: “What is the core message that Bert is sending, over and over again, to his people? “

For the sake of those of us who seek to enhance leaders’ ability to motivate others, and who want to help them thoughtfully bring out their people’s absolute best and highest potential, I wondered: “What can we learn? What can we do that is the opposite of Bert?”

According to role theory**, messages about your role (basically, how you are viewed by others) are “sent”, or verbally and non-verbally communicated, from one party to another, in all human interactions.

I decode from Bert’s actions that his one consistent message and expectation towards his people is, “You don’t matter.” And there’s a secondary message that comes along: “You are powerless.”

Let’s Flip That Around: Bradley’s Motivating Methods

The good news is that we can be at least as creative and thorough in motivating others, if not more so, as Bert was in de-motivating his people. We can use that same level of creative energy and effort to send positive messages that really work, to bring out the very best in those around us.

So let’s flip Bert’s behaviors around, starting with his overall message. The most important stance we can hold in our minds and hearts, and communicate via our words and actions, is: “You are important to me/us.” “I/We notice you.” “I//We honestly value what you do.”

Assuming you have reasonably capable people in your vicinity, additional messages can include: “You are smart and capable.” “You can get the job done.” “I trust you.” “I respect you.” “I always do my best to set you up for success.” “I am proud of your achievements.” “Your success is as important as my own, if not more so.”

As an executive coach, I have had the honor and pleasure of working with lots of smart people. I’ll combine and personify these types of managers into “Bradley”, the anti-Bert. So what does Bradley do differently?

1. Bradley is excellent at coaching others. He starts by asking questions to reveal the boundaries of their existing knowledge. As appropriate, he patiently and respectfully teaches them the info himself, or points them in directions where they can discover their own solutions. His favorite coaching method, however, is to question them in open-ended ways, to lead them to discover answers for themselves. That way, the info really sticks, and their own confidence is built. He also sets aside regular time to focus on, and promote, his people’s career aspirations, discuss whatever else is on their minds, and just shoot the breeze a bit.

2. Bradley agrees on milestones and check-in points with colleagues. These are set to be early and frequently enough to ensure that the colleague remains on track for success. Check-in’s give Bradley and the person a chance to identify fuzzy aspects, where the person might be stuck; to discuss and choose the best next steps to resolve these and keep moving forward (including Bradley offering to take action himself); and to celebrate the colleagues’ solutions, lessons learned, and other “wins” along the way.

3. Bradley is more than happy to give credit where credit is due. He “catches people doing something right” all the time – in other words, simply noticing and commenting on desirable actions. After all, isn’t other people’s success also Bradley’s, and the organization’s?

4. Bradley is a master of relationship networks. He always considers the impact of the information he learns in his travels on his colleagues, and then, as appropriate, shares it with them as soon as possible. He does his best to avoid them being blind-sided or inadvertently generating ill-will. At every opportunity.

5. To complete Bradley’s skills as a master of motivation, he communicates others’ success, using various and creative methods. For example, he uses meetings, group events, and multi-addressed emails to praise others’ achievements, foresight, learning, and/or ability. He features them in promotional video clips. During these occasions, he describes exactly what the person(s) did to creatively help solve a significant joint issue. For those who prefer private recognition, he might simply give them a personal card expressing specifically what he appreciated, buy them a balloon or Starbucks gift card, or send an email about it to their boss and/or boss’s boss. The creative possibilities are endless.

Now, here are 3 questions I’d suggest you can ponder for yourself:

1. What is the most important message you want to send to those around you?

2. What are you doing to send that message?

3. What else can you do to send that message?

WJM Faculty Member Lilian Abrams, Ph.D., has coached hundreds of leaders at all levels to achieve key development goals and work objectives. Her prior experience includes Orgainzational Effectiveness roles at Nabisco, Watson Wyatt, Towers Perrin and Kaiser Permanente. Lilian is based in New Jersey.

References and further reading:

*Sally Helgeson, at the May 1, 2014 NJOD Learning Community’s “Annual Sharing Day” conference, Newark, NJ.

**Classic role theory:

A recent research application of role theory: Who will lead and who will follow? A social process of leadership identity construction in organizations. (2010.) DeRue, D. S.; Ashford, S. J. Academy of Management Review. 35(4), 627-647.

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