(de)motivating employees

February 5, 2011 BY danariely

A lesson about (de)motivating employees

A few months ago an ex-student of mine, who was at the time working for a big software company, contacted me and asked me to meet with her and her team later in the summer. My student, together with a large team, had worked very hard for the previous two years on an innovation which they believed was the best new idea in the “computer world,” and the best new direction for their company.  They worked very hard on this project and were full of hope and expectations. But, between the time that she originally contacted me and the time that I arrived at their offices for my presentation, the CEO of the company looked at the project and decided to cancel it.

So there I was sitting with a group of highly creative people who were completely deflated. I’ve never seen people in the high-tech industry with a lower level of motivation. So I asked them, “How many of you show up to work later than you did before the project was shut down?” Everybody raised their hand. I next asked them, “And how many of you go home early?” All hands went up. Lastly, I asked them, “How many of you feel that you are now more likely to fudge a bit your expense reports?” In this case, no one answered the question—instead, they smiled in a way that made me think that they had first-hand experience with expense fudge.

Now, it is possible that the project was really not that good, or that it did not fit with the future direction of the company, which would mean that canceling it was the appropriate decision.  But even if this were the case, how the CEO could have behaved differently if he was also trying to keep the team members excited and interested in their work?  So I posed this question to the team and they came up with a few interesting answers:

1. The CEO could have asked them to present the project to the entire company.  The presentation would have included the process that the team followed and the final product specifications. This would allow everyone at the company to understand and (hopefully) appreciate the hard work they had done.

2. The CEO could have asked the team to write about the steps they took in the process of development, and then to use this as a template to help other teams as they developed new products. In this way, their work would not have felt wasted.

3. The CEO could have gone a step further and allowed the team to build a few working prototypes in order to let them experiment with the technology in more depth (which would have also provided a more accurate idea of the usefulness of the technology).

4. The CEO could have asked the team to redirect their efforts toward finding ways to introduce some of their new technology into other products the company was working on.

These were just a few of the team’s ideas, and of course there are many possible approaches that senior management could have taken to boost their morale. Of course, most of these morale-boosters would have required some investment of time and money. The CEO may have thought of these people as rats working in a maze, and therefore seen no reason to motivate or help them make the most out of their canceled project. But if he had understood the importance of meaning in the workplace he might have taken some of these steps, spent some money in the process, and ended up with more motivated employees.  Sadly, this was not the case. I recently heard that the main people in that particular group left the company, and that the whole group was dissolved.  Maybe this is the kind of expensive lesson that this CEO needed.  However, most likely, he will be able to tell himself a story about why he was correct and they were all petty and wrong.