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How to Demotivate Workers

Why leaders should be the cause of employee demotivation.

I'm not happy at work. That's an expression I hear increasingly these days from clients and colleagues. According to Mercer's new What's Working global survey of nearly 30,000 people in 17 countries which showed that between 28% and 56% of workers are seriously considering leaving their jobs at the present time, with younger workers even more likely to be considering an exit. Recent studies show how leaders can be the cause of employee demotivation.

The Mercer study, echoing several Gallup polls in the past, shows that workers are increasingly less committed to their employers, which apparently has been exacerbated during the recession. When asked what are motivating factors for employees, the Mercer study showed that "being treated with respect," and "work-life" balance led the list, with base pay and benefits being listed lower. It's interesting to note that those two factors were rated much higher in European countries such as the Netherlands than in Canada or the U.S.

Jim Collins, author of Good To Great, (with coauthor Morten T. Hansen), in his new book, Great By Choice, argues that unsuccessful parents and bosses have one thing in common—demotivation. Collins argues that good leadership is about empowering employees to do what they're good at in the service of something bigger than themselves.

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Collins heads up a leadership center in Boulder, Colorado, where he conducts research into what successful companies do and the leadership practices that help. Collins says that "The best leaders don't worry about motivating people, they are careful to not demotivate them." Collins contends that there are three things that demotivate workers: Hype or the failure to acknowledge the real difficulties the organization faces; Futurism, or always looking down the road at distant goals or a vision, and not being present; and False Democracy, or inviting employees' input when the leader has already made a decision. A combination of all three can kill employee motivation.

Part of the problem is that so many leaders are essentially ignorant about the basics of human psychology, and in particular the recent findings about how the brain works, Collins and many others such as David Rock contend. I am amazed at how many "carrot and stick" leaders are still in charge of organizations, but worse, how the media continues to feature in stories the aggressive, abusive, charismatic leaders, who may be successful, if the only measure is shareholder values and company profits, but treat employees with disrespect.

It's unlikely that the end of the economic downtown will easily solve the problems of demotivated workers, so today's leaders face the challenge of how to improve performance and productivity while at the same time addressing the issues of employee motivation, job satisfaction and happiness

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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