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"Inadvertent Demoralization" Is a Real Problem at Work

It involves the tendency to demoralize employees—without being aware of it.

Over the course of a long management career, I saw a certain kind of scenario played out about, oh, maybe 2,000 times.

Manager (highly stressed): “I need the document right away! It’s for an important meeting with Schnauzer (the CEO)!”

Employee (trying to stay calm): “Sure, it’ll just take me a minute to find it.”

Manager (growing more agitated by the second): “I don’t have a minute – I need it now!”

Employee (searching through a forest of files): “I know it’s in here somewhere...”

Manager (pained): “But where the heck is it? Schnauzer’s waiting!”

Employee (massively relieved): “Ah, here it is.”

Manager (grabbing the document): “Great.” (Then goes racing off to meeting thinking, Ah, that worked well—what a valuable employee—nothing like quick action and good forceful leadership!)

Employee: (Exhales and thinks: Whew, what a lunatic. Can’t take too much more of this...)

Wikimedia Commons
"The Daily Job" by Erik Pevernagie, Oil on canvas.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I call it "inadvertent demoralization" —my own phrase—and I've long felt it's one of the most subtle but problematic tendencies of management.

As the little story above shows, it's the tendency of managers to sometimes demoralize employees without being aware they're doing it.

Inadvertent demoralization can take many, many forms. But to give a bit more texture to the issue, with employee engagement levels perennially hovering low around the 30% mark, here are five common ways managers scare away talented employees—without even trying to.

Provide an unclear career path. One thing a manager can count on: Talented people want to get ahead and make the most of themselves. As an old ad campaign slogan once put it: "Americans want to succeed, not merely survive." (As do, incidentally, people everywhere.) Given this reality, why would management not ensure that top talent has a clear means of advancement? Yet I've worked in many organizations in which remarkably little time was devoted to simple, logical career pathing. Without it, individual motivation can easily flag.

Ignore ideas. Talented people by nature are full of ideas. Often, ideas for new and better ways of doing things. For more efficient processes and creative ways of engaging customers. Few management actions dampen enthusiasm more than casually dismissing, or not having time for, an employee's carefully thought out innovation. I often call the management mindset of "this is the way is the way we've always done it here," the nine most dangerous words in business. For creative individuals it's a morale killer—even if you don't intend it to be.

Be unaware of the effect of the messages you send. Lack of self-awareness—plain and simple—of how one is coming across to others is one of the most fundamental challenges of management. I can't tell you how many times over the course of a several-decade-long management career I came out of meetings—due to a manager's tone, anger, impatience, frustration, lack of clarity, agitation (per the story above), thinking "that message probably isn't going to be received the way it was intended to be." Small things make a big difference. Talented people assume they'll be treated with respect. Loyalty is easy to lose and hard to regain.

Sweat the small stuff. Studies show that millennials in particular (and in truth employees of all ages) respond better to coaching than to traditional command-and-control management. Yet managers often lapse into a tendency to "sweat the small stuff"—default to nettlesome micromanagement—because it's easy, and it gives managers the illusion they're doing something by taking action, even when that action does little but frustrate those on the receiving end.

Forget about feedback. A recent study from TINYpulse that I wrote about discussed the importance of feedback in 2017, and how management feedback is in chronically short supply but continuously large demand. And why wouldn't it be? Employees in general—and talented employees in particular—want to know how they're doing. They take pride in their work and want to be sure they're doing it well. Providing timely feedback is a core management function, and the lack of receiving it causes concern.

Most of the management issues noted here—career paths, communication, tone of voice, lack of feedback, etc.—involve problems of "omission" rather than "commission."

That's the real challenge of "inadvertent demoralization"—it's subtle and easy to overlook. That is, until valuable employees begin to vote... with their feet.

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