How to Demotivate an Employee

Bob Leggitt | Friday, 18 May 2012 |

Whilst my intro won't immediately sound relevant to the title, it does all connect up to illustrate something really interesting over the course of the piece. Particularly if you're an employer, this article, I believe, is a vital read. But even if you're not, you'll almost certainly identify with the subject matter, which reveals an interesting piece of psychology everyone should bear in mind.

So, I’ve recently made quite a fascinating study of members’ behaviour on a forum (something I do a lot), in this case with a particular focus on longstanding members who’ve stopped posting, and why that might have been.

You may have read in my Is The Forum Dying? article that I have theories as to why large numbers of forum members have started to defect in general. But for this study I wanted to get some specifics. I was looking at individual members, when they stopped posting, and what happened immediately before they stopped posting.

Employee of the Year Competition

For shorter-term members (people who’d been posting for a matter of weeks or months), there were often fairly obvious issues preceding their departure. Fall-outs with other members, embarrassing outcomes from badly judged posts, a marked decline in their forum reputation perhaps… Exactly the sort of stuff you’d imagine, really. But with the ‘senior’ members – those who’d been posting for over a year – it wasn’t so straightforward. These were people who’d had the arguments and come through them. They’d made the embarrassing posts and brazened it out. I didn’t expect to be able to attribute the departure of these members to a single instance of trolling or a moment of embarrassment. And indeed I couldn’t. They had a high resistance to adversity. I was intrigued. Why had they stopped posting?…

Soon enough, I started to see a pattern. A number of these more senior members had stopped posting, or at least massively scaled down their posting, at the same time. But in the phase preceding this mini exodus, there were no arguments – nothing I could even describe as mild negativity. It didn’t make sense… Until I noticed a special forum event, which had concluded just before the longstanding members vanished. What was that event? A competition. A vote-driven competition in which the best contributors would be recognised, by the forum, for what they’d put in.

I started to investigate the outcome of the competition, and sure enough, given the amount of work these longstanding members had put into the forum, it could easily be imagined that they’d have been disappointed by the results. Some of these people had clearly spent many hours per week providing content for the forum, but had been beaten in the competition by members whose meaningful contribution was minimal. All some of the winners had really done, was recognise that if you get in people’s faces when they’re voting, butter them up, and draw attention to the work you have done (however small the amount in comparison to others), they will actually vote for you.

The more I read, the more obvious it was what had happened. Far from serving its purpose and motivating the most valuable forum members to keep providing, the competition had actually demotivated some of the most valuable, hardworking members, and instead motivated schmoozers, borderline spammers – those members whose greatest skill, was playing the system. Motivate a borderline spammer, and what do you get?… Yep, borderline spam. It’s not a good outcome.

This turned my attention to motivational competitions in general, and what sort of effect they really have – in the workplace, for example. It’s absolutely critical that employers don’t demotivate employees, but my study of forum members’ behaviour looks to support the fact that if employers are using competitions as motivational tools, that’s exactly what they risk doing. Remember, these forum members were longstanding providers of regular, valued content, and they had, most significantly, a high resistance to adversity. And yet, so it appears, they could not shrug off the adversity of being beaten in a competition by members whose contributions they felt were inferior.

What’s important with these motivational contests, is not the period during which the competition is running. That clearly does motivate some people to work harder. No, what’s really important, is the aftermath. The point at which the vast majority of workers are thinking to themselves: “I should have won that. Where’s my recognition? Is it really worth me bothering to put in the amount of work I’ve been putting in?”

Ultimately, the overriding concern with staged competitions is that only one person, or at best a limited number of people, can win. Everyone thinks they work hard (even if in comparative terms they don’t), and that means that if you run a competition as a motivational tool, most of the ‘competitiors’ will end up feeling aggrieved after the results are announced. Almost invariably, the losers will feel they were more deserving of recognition than the winners (human ego sees to that), and that’s counter-productive in terms of motivation – in a very widespread sense. You have one, two or three happy winners, and perhaps a hundred disgruntled losers.

With competitions, you’re not at risk of demotivating the dossers, because they don’t have any motivation in the first place. The people you’re at risk of demotivating, are those who have a strong work ethic. The message you’re sending to them, should they lose out to the cheats and schmoozers who play the system, is: “Actually, why bother? If the recognition goes to those who only work hard when there’s a competition on, then why not join that group? Hard work, over the long term, doesn’t pay.” You’re taking the people who have the most instrinsic value to you, and simply pissing them off. You're encouraging them to start playing the system.

Perhaps the key factor in all of this, is that people will always play the system. Whatever measures you put in place to ensure that fair’s fair, the very people you’re trying to prevent from progressing, will by nature find a way to circumvent those measures. That’s where their talent lies – it’s what they do. It’s really quite a brilliant ability, but it ain’t gonna benefit anyone but them. A singular, staged competition is an open invitation to those people to do what they do best: take, whilst the givers are too busy giving to notice. True, these motivational contests often do produce very worthy winners, but even if that’s the case, invariably, you still end up with a mass of people feeling short-changed.

So in a broad, ongoing sense, competition is a productive thing. But when used as a one-off means to motivate workers over a temporary period, the negative consequences of a competition could seriously outweigh the benefits. The message for employers? Reward work, on merit, as it’s done, and don’t try to save money or energy with cheap motivational gimmicks. It's the many you need to keep feeling valued. Not the few.

Planet Botch is contactable only via Twitter.