Extrinsic Demotivation

Authors from Plato to Daniel Pink (well, maybe not Plato) have talked about the importance of intrinsic motivation among your employees, that is, being motivated by their own interest in their work rather than by external factors like compensation and pats on the head. You get your best work from people, they say, when those people are motivated because they enjoy the work rather than motivated simply by a paycheck.

While it may be better for your employees to motivate themselves (suggesting that maybe you should not try so hard to do it, instead merely focusing on providing an environment where they can do their best work), it is definitely possible for you to DEmotivate them by your actions, and you need to avoid that.

A case in point…

I was talking with a friend in California recently who works for a luxury retail store (I should not mention their name, but a lot of people LoVe their bags). My friend, whom we will call S (again, no names), has been with the company for 5 years in a part-time position, and his story highlights some good lessons for any leader.

S works in a small department within the store, and last year both his manager and the one full-time employee left, leaving S alone in the department. He ran it for a few months, until a new manager was hired (despite doing the job well in the interim, S was not offered the position, which may have been due to his fewer years of experience). S thought he would be offered the full-time employee position, but no, that went to someone from another department with no experience in this particular line. S was left without an opportunity to move up.

Seeing the writing on that particular wall, he tried to move to another department and into a full-time position. This time, his experience held him back; because his new manager and the new full-timer had no experience in this particular line, S was needed to provide the expertise to keep things going. He was too valuable to be allowed to leave, but not considered valuable enough to promote.

With no opportunity for either vertical or lateral movement, what would YOU do?

Bear in mind that S has been a top seller in the company in multiple years (and since his part-time wages are hourly rather than commission-based, it does not really matter salary-wise whether he sells $1 million worth in a month, or just $1K), and he is the only person in the store to have received multiple “perfect scores” from the Secret Shoppers sent to check up on them. He has taken a second job at Starbucks so he can get the health insurance that he needs, so that he can stay at this store where, as a part-timer, he does not get any benefits. Also, because of his status, he is not eligible for any corporate training, so he does all his product line study on his own. Finally, he is the only part-timer in the store, which is an issue on holidays since he only gets paid his regular rate for such days, whereas the full-timers get special compensation…so guess who gets scheduled for every holiday?

S would like to start a career in this company and he is very good at his job, but everyone has a breaking point, and S seems to be reaching his. He is less active when it comes to pursuing sales (though on the day he shared this story with me, he sold about $10,000 in the course of an hour, which sounds pretty active to me), and spends more time in the back studying his product field (which can help him at any luxury retailer, not just this one) rather than being out on the floor.

His store manager recently said to him, “S, I really want to see you get your motivation back.” Is she kidding? He had his motivation, and it did not come from her, nor did it come from a great paycheck or his nonexistent benefits package; instead, it came from within. She did not give him his motivation, but she DID manage to take it away, and now she expects him to get it back on his own. Yes, we want people who are intrinsically motivated, but we also need to be careful not to kill the motivation they have by sending the message that they do not have any future opportunities.

If S leaves, he not only takes away his experience, he is also likely to take his clients (which, after 5 years, make up a pretty impressive list) who are just as happy to shop at another luxury retailer if they know they are getting the best advice from their sales rep. This shop has a talented, motivated individual whom they are about to lose through poor leadership. As leaders we appreciate having people who are self-motivated; that’s the best kind of employee. We need to realize, though, that while we may not be responsible for motivating them, we still have to take care not to DEmotivate them.

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