Lots of us—likely all of us—have experienced frustrations and disappointments at work from time to time.
Raises or promotions delayed or denied; inadequate and less-than-respectful communications; urgent demands made for no obvious reason: These transgressions add up, and they can bring everyone’s morale down.
When I started to ask friends about work experiences they’d personally found demotivating, the answers were not too surprising. They centered on issues of fairness and respect: “This one manager literally screamed at people in the office. No one wanted to work with him or deal with him.
The place had a constant turnover, largely because of him—though, ironically, he’s still there.”
“You get no bonus, while the CEO and other top-tier employees get 6-figure bonuses.”
“When the dead weight is praised as much as the hard workers due to being friends, nephews, mistresses, etc. of the boss, the hard workers won’t stick around.”
(Shades of the great Dolly Parton here, from the hit “9 to 5”: “They just use your mind/And they never give you credit!/It’s enough to drive you/Crazy if you let it!”)
One friend—a vice president at a global financial institution, whom I’ll call Bethany—reached out with more than a little to say about her current unhealthy work situation.
From a “temporary” arrangement of added work (for no added pay) that has so far lasted 18 months to a seating plan that has employees switching desks every day (and putting their belongings in lockers each night), Bethany’s experiences—and her eloquent descriptions of them—offer great insight. Here are some important points on what to do, and what not to do, to help foster engaged, motivated employees.
Work deadlines should be fair—and should make sense to all involved
“Top management makes commitments to regulators without checking with the people on the ground,” says Bethany.
“They don’t look at whether what they’re promising is practical or reasonable to implement—or what appropriate timelines might be.”
“More egregiously,” she continues, “the timelines they’re putting forth don’t matter. The regulators wouldn’t care if the firm said it would take one year to complete a task, as long as we could show a plan for how to get it done. Instead, senior management committed to the implementation of a very detailed technology build within five months.”
Relatedly, make sure deadlines are part of a coherent plan. If at all possible, include input on the deadlines from your team
“A lot of middle management here seems concerned with managing upward,” Bethany notes.
“When those of us just below them in title tried to escalate concerns about timelines [for a recent project] and put forth a proposal that should have satisfied all parties, they didn’t want to bring it to senior management—no one wanted to tell seniors they’d gotten it wrong from the start.”
“So,” Bethany continues about this ill-fated endeavor: “People were pushed.
We worked weekends and late nights, and we delivered—to crickets. Middle management was so busy looking upward that they never figured out how to get an announcement distributed. Now we have a technology tool that has been sitting unused for exactly one month today. The announcement might go out today or tomorrow.”
Have, and stick to, a timeline for “temporary” arrangements—and pay attention to what’s happening during transitions
“Eighteen months ago,” Bethany explains, “there were layoffs here, and the job of one person who was let go was split between me and two other colleagues—all women, by the way—‘temporarily.’
Furthermore, the role that we are covering is for a manager who is a walking nightmare to deal with—her behavior is combative and defensive.”
Eighteen months is a long time for a “temporary” situation with no added title or compensation (not to mention with a totally undesirable added manager).
To make matters worse, Bethany’s direct manager doesn’t seem to have noticed much about her contributions during this time.
“Adding to my demotivation is the fact that they are now starting to try to fill the position we three have been covering, and my boss asked me whether I thought that a senior vice president is the right level for them to hire for the role. I told him that I think it is—but that if they’re going to hire an SVP to do the job that I’ve been doing for a year and a half, then I should be an SVP as well.
His response was, ‘Oh, should it be a VP, then?’ I had to spell it out for him that I was saying I should be promoted,” she says.
Make sure your communication system gets information to the people who will be affected by it
“There are a number of projects having to do with reorganization and re-engineer efforts that aren’t communicating with each other—or with the people directly affected by the changes,” Bethany says.
“So everyone knows that there are major changes coming, but no one knows what they are, when they’re coming, or how we’ll each be affected.”
Poor management will show in everyone’s work
“A guy who used to work here liked to joke that ‘the beatings will continue until morale improves,’” Bethany recalls, “but that actually seems to be a tactic. I am a responsible person, and I used to care about doing my work well. This last year especially—with my colleagues and I all overworked, overwhelmed, and under-resourced, and with a management that doesn’t seem to care about employees’ hard work or the human cost of delivering what they demand—I feel broken. I just don’t care about getting things done or done well a lot of the time. When I am interested in parts of my work, so much other stuff is piling up that I can’t even enjoy being engaged by a project.”
Floor plans and personal space matter too
“On top of it all is the open floor plan and ‘hoteling’ set up here,” Bethany says. “You never know where you’ll be sitting or if you’ll even get a desk. All personal items have to be cleared away and stored in lockers overnight. It feels completely dehumanizing.”
Scary stuff, huh? Don’t let this happen to your team. Some basic consideration of employees’ time, effort, and work experience goes a long way. No “urgent” deadlines that aren’t urgent; no shutting people out of information that affects their work; seriously, no screaming.
If you’re the one finding yourself demotivated—and your attempts to address the problems have not born fruit—remember Dolly as you polish your resume: “You’re in the same boat with a lotta your friends/Waitin’ for the day your ship’ll come in/The tide’s gonna turn, and it’s all gonna roll your way.”
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