Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

How To Undermine Your Employees

What’s the best way to motivate employees? According to Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, it’s progress. In a recent article in the McKinsey Quarterly, Amabile and Kramer write that a sense of progress on meaningful objectives is fundamental to motivation. If your employees feel they’re doing something meaningful and making progress on it, they’re motivated. If they feel they’re doing something that’s not meaningful — or don’t understand why it’s meaningful — then motivation wanes. If they don’t sense that they’re making progress, motivation dies.

Amabile and Kramer go on to say that executives often commit four errors that undermine employee motivation. Here they are:

Mediocrity signals — your mission statement may include soaring language with emotionally appealing overtones. However, what you say to your employees day-to-day may say the opposite. Amabile and Kramer give the example of a company that claimed to be dedicated to innovation driven by autonomous teams. It’s quite possible that they believed their own rhetoric. In their day-to-day activities, however, they emphasized cost savings and undermined team autonomy by dictating cost reduction measures. Ultimately, employees came to perceive the rhetoric as hypocritical and lost their enthusiasm. Moral: what you say should be consistent with what you do.

Strategic attention deficit disorder — I once worked for a CEO who travelled a lot. After every trip, he’d come back with a new idea derived from an airline magazine article. We all braced for a YAGI — yet another great idea. Actually, some of them probably were great ideas. But there were too many of them. We were just getting started on one when another one superseded it. Amabile and Kramer give the example of a company led by a CEO with a short attention span and a “…desire to embrace the latest management trends. … If you blinked, you could miss the next strategic shift.” Moral: consistency over time is not boring, it’s motivational.

Corporate Keystone Kops — the Keystone Kops were famous for being uncoordinated. They literally couldn’t get out of each other’s way. Amabile and Kramer say the same phenomenon occurs far too often in the corporate world. Their examples include complex matrix organizations that make it difficult to know who’s in charge of what and a failure to hold departments and individuals accountable for meeting their commitments. If one team meets its commitments and another team doesn’t, the lack of coordination can spoil it for everybody. Moral: Keep it simple and keep it coordinated.

Misbegotten big hairy audacious goals — management gurus Jim Collins and Jerry Porras suggest that organizations should develop BHAGS — visionary goals that stir the emotions. The most cited example is probably John Kennedy’s challenge to NASA to put a man on the moon. It’s a great example but hard to emulate. Amabile and Kramer write that corporate BHAGs are often “… grandiose and [contain] little relevance or meaning to the people in the trenches. They can be so extreme as to seem unattainable and so vague as to seem empty. The result is a meaning vacuum. Cynicism rises and drive plummets.” The authors cite a chemical company whose BHAG was that all projects had to yield $100 million in annual revenue within five years of launch. “This goal did not infuse the work with meaning, because it had little to do with the day-to-day activities of people in the organization. … worst of all, it did not connect with anything the employees valued. Most of them wanted to provide something of value to their customers; an aggressive revenue target told them only about the value to the organization, not to the customer.” Moral: BHAGs are OK but make them meaningful to the people you’re trying to motivate. Keep them focused on customers and simple enough that the “people in the trenches” can get a sense of progress.

You can find Amabile and Kramer’s article, “How leaders kill meaning at work” by clicking here. You can also find their book, The Progress Prinicple, by clicking here.

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