Combat Demotivators in the Workplace

March 19, 2015

demotivators in the workplace

Daniel Goleman is a renowned expert on Emotional Intelligence and has spoken extensively about motivation at work. Recently, Dr. Goleman sat down with AMA to answer a few questions about demotivators in the workplace.

AMA: Hi Daniel, thank you for joining us here at AMA. You’ve written much about how to keep people motivated at work. What factors are at play when an employee becomes unmotivated and disengaged?

DG: The most common demotivator I find at workplaces is apathy. Apathy at work is often a result of a disconnection between what matters to the person and what they’re tasked with. However, performance may suffer for a number of reasons, of course. Personal problems, office disagreement, or changing environments can mask the presence of apathy in an organization. Sometimes the best way to gauge if someone isn’t engaged is to simply ask: Do you enjoy what you’re doing?

AMA: Now that we’ve identified one of the key demotivators at work, how can companies ensure that their employees are engaged? Should managers be thinking about work in a different way?

DG: There’s still a dated mentality around work: the idea that it’s not supposed to be “fun.” In my Leadership: A Master Class series, I spoke with Dr. Daniel Siegel, who had a different approach.

Siegel said: “There’s a circuit in the emotional areas of the brain that’s involved in playfulness. It engages creative combinations of things that can really benefit a worker. Too often we separate work from play. Yet incorporating more joy in our work life is a great thing to do neurologically.” Therefore, I would argue that enjoying a task can boost performance and actually increase engagement and retention.

One particular leadership style I am a proponent of is called the affiliative leader. This leader knows that having a good time together is not a waste of time. They recognize that it produces positive energy and social and emotional capital. Much like what Dr. Siegel described, a more positive employee is a more engaged employee.

AMA: Are there any other neurological connections that our brains make between work and play?

As Dr. Siegel points out, the act of playing is associated with dopamine. Dopamine creates a reward system, and those rewarding feelings encourage exploration. This biological reaction is crucial for a productive worker to experience those same rewarding feelings when they explore a new idea or do a job well done.

It is also the foundation of innovation — the moment that allows for creativity to emerge. Innovation is exciting and motivating. Every organization needs that energy from their workers to survive.

AMA: This idea of innovation is so crucial, as you say, so how do companies inspire these motivated, engaged employees to be innovative?

DG: For innovation to happen, you really want people to step out of the familiar and take joy in making new combinations and contributions. Though it may seem counterintuitive, that requires vulnerability. A person has to feel like he or she is in an environment that respects that when they step out of the familiar, they’re going into territory where it may not work out, and that’s okay.

A teacher, for example, needs to create a classroom environment where students feel that they can make mistakes and learn from them, rather than be reprimanded for them. They must learn that it’s good to explore new ways of combining knowledge. Organizations need to create the same kind of positive attitude for innovation and exploration.

AMA: We’ve talked a lot about what companies can do to inspire and engage their teams. Let’s talk about the other side of the spectrum. What do some leaders do that pushes their teams closer to apathy than engagement?

DG: One way this happens is due to a command-and-control leader — “Just do it because I’m the boss, and I say so.” Another is what’s called the pace setter, who’s often someone with a very high internal standard for performance. When he becomes the boss, he doesn’t draw on any of the other leadership styles. He leads by example — “Do it the way I do.” This approach lacks empathy and leaves the team feeling misunderstood, disrespected, and disappointed. This hardly embraces engagement and innovation, and is not the mindset you would want a productive team member to have.

AMA: Finally, what are some actions a leader should take to ensure that their team knows their value and has a more enjoyable, engaged workday?

DG: There are a few things that leaders can do right away that should put them on the right track away from apathy and towards engaged productivity. One is to create a sense of community to integrate the various moving parts of an organization as well as possible. A team that acknowledges that they’re all in this together will work better together and establish a sense of community, allowing them to thrive.

Also consider starting a conversation about what they’d like to accomplish in the next 3 or 6 months. Ask them to focus on something they enjoy or have always wanted to try. People grow through trying and experiencing new things, and they will become more innovative in the process. Finally, you can show your team that what they’re doing matters. Give examples of how their work positively impacts the lives of others, both in and out of the company.

AMA: Daniel Goleman, thank you for joining us, and as always we appreciate your insight into solving the problems of the business world.

Check out more from Daniel Goleman on the dangers of apathy in the workplace.

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An unmotivated workforce won't give the results you desire. Learn how to keep everyone engaged with these AMA resources and seminars.

About The Author

Daniel Goleman is an internationally known psychologist who lectures frequently to professional groups, business audiences, and on college campuses. As a science journalist, Goleman reported on the brain and behavioral sciences for The New York Times for many years. His 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, a Times bestseller for a year and a half—with more than 5,000,000 copies in print worldwide in 40 languages—has also been a bestseller in many countries. He has written books on other topics as well, including self-deception, creativity, transparency, meditation, social and emotional learning, ecoliteracy and the ecological crisis.

One Comment »

  1. avatar

    Nice idea, the symptom is apathy at jobs, “work is not supposed to be fun”, and the excessive control of the managers refrains the employees from innovation.
    The alternative seems to be a rigth to innovation and an admitted “right to mistake”, workplace seems to be such a dangerous environment….:-(

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