Ever had to sit through an hour-long work meeting that had nothing to do with you? The whole time, you’re counting the minutes and dreaming about getting back to work as the speaker starts to sound more and more like Charlie Brown’s mom. This, my friends, is what most people (including organizational behavior professionals) call “soul-crushing bullsh*t.” It’s pointless, it’s unproductive, it’s demotivating - and it might be slowly killing your employees.
Work demotivators come in many forms. Sometimes they appear under the guise of team building exercises or group projects. Other times they’re thinly veiled as mentorship programs or mindfulness training. But regardless of the name upper management has bestowed upon these mind-numbing exercises, the end result is all the same: employees will surely want to rip their hair out. In a recent Aeon article, Andre Spicer, professor of organizational behavior at the Cass Business School at City, University of London, shares one of his experiences:
“After getting lost in the conference hotel, I finally located the ‘creativity workshop’. Joining the others, I sat cross-legged on the floor. Soon, an ageing hippie was on his feet. ‘Now grab a mandala,’ he said, pointing to a pile of what looked like pages from a mindfulness colouring-in book. ‘And use those to bring your mandala to life,’ he said pointing at a pile of magic markers. After 30 minutes of colouring, he told us to share our mandalas.
The mandala workshop bore many of the tell-tale signs of bullshit. The session was empty of facts and full of abstractions. Participants skipped between buzzwords such as ‘authenticity’, ‘self-actualisation’ and ‘creativity’. I found it impossible to attribute meaning to this empty talk. The harder I tried, the less sense it made.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, this wasn’t Spicer’s first time attending an organizational activity. Events like these are usually mandatory. And why wouldn’t they be? Corporate companies spend thousands on outside consultancy firms to come up with this stuff, so they better make sure they get their money’s worth out of it.
Fixing Demotivators Before They Get Worse
Mandala workshops are, of course, an extreme example of the farcical hogwash corporate culture forces us to do. Usually, the activities are much more understated, and usually, they’re actually related to work. It’s a difficult balance to strike. Branding and company culture are important to making employees feel included and motivated, but too many corporate events and pointless work projects will only have the opposite effect. Just like the guy who tries too hard to be cool - it’s not long before people start catching onto the charade. All the workshops in the world won’t save a company that doesn’t pay attention to what its employees truly want and need.
So, how do we come up with a balanced solution when our teams are looking a little lethargic? Firstly, skip the company retreats. It starts with the workplace, and often, it starts with management. Work demotivators live right under our noses, small and unseen until they begin to proliferate, like bacteria in a Petri dish. Take a look at your team and see if you recognize any of these pesky little bugs.
Self-Congratulatory Pep Talks
I liken this to a bad pre-shift meeting at a restaurant. A good shift meeting goes over the new specials and the 86 list. A bad shift meeting is one in which the manager has nothing to say except “let’s get out there and upsell, team!” The same can be said for corporate pep talks. Sure, they can be useful if they educate and empower your employees, but this is seldom the case. Most pep talks center around revenue and sales numbers before concluding with some bogus rallying call. The truth is, employees don’t really care how much money the company is making (unless it’s directly tied to their salary). Instead, use the time to highlight individual performers and identify specific ways your team can address problem areas.
Too Many Perks, Not Enough Pay
Hey, perks are great. People like perks - but not when the pay is lousy. As I’ve said before, millennials just want salaries that are proportionate to our roles. We also want perks and benefits that are relevant to our needs. Mental health days, affordable insurance, flexible hours, and career growth opportunities are more important to us than game rooms and in-office yoga classes. Today’s expenditure-to-income ratio hovers around 75%, meaning that the average family spends three quarters of their income on expenses! So, if your employees seem demotivated at work, the first thing you should look at is their pay.
Nothing kills motivation faster than having a manager constantly looming over your shoulder. A well-oiled workplace relies on its employees to get the job done, and a worthy captain has faith in their employees to do said jobs. Micromanagement is not just a demotivator; it’s a fallen tree on the pathway to the greater business goal. Harvard Business Review author Karen Dillon warns: “If your mind is filled with the micro-level details of a number of jobs, there’s no room for big picture thoughts.” For managers who want to try being a little more hands-off, HBR recommends creating priority lists, soliciting feedback, and taking baby steps when starting to delegate duties.
If pay isn’t the problem, it could be that employees aren’t feeling fulfilled in their work. Everyone wants to feel like what they do at work matters, whether a rank-and-file employee or a high-level exec. Employees who feel their work is meaningful are more satisfied and engaged at work, and are three times more likely to stay with the company. But how will employees know their roles are meaningful if they never get recognition, or if someone is stealing credit for their hard work? Managers should be sure they’re giving credit when and where it’s rightly due. And remember, praise is often much more effective than criticism.
And finally, we have the penultimate motivation killer: pointless meetings and exercises. Why do so many companies still fall victim to the meeting craze?! There are more than 25 million meetings each day in the United States, yet executives report that more than 67% of meetings are failures! Upper level managers spend about 50% of their time in meetings – time that would be much better spent coaching and empowering employees. Experts recommend cutting back on unproductive meetings by carefully considering who needs to be involved, creating action plans, and replacing formal meetings with frequent, informal communication.
The bottom line is that employees just want to do their jobs, get help when they need it, and be recognized for their accomplishments. Don’t waste their time by making them sit in meetings or listen to micromanagers ramble on about productivity. And for the sake of everyone’s sanity, please don’t make them color mandalas to channel their creativity.