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How to Crush an Employee’s Enthusiasm

In addition to demotivating  talented workers, an opaque and dictatorial leadership style can silence innovation from below, leaving the leader in charge of coming up with all the great ideas.

What’s the Big Idea? 

Employees aren’t children (by law in the United States, at least) but unsuccessful parents and bosses  have one thing in common: they are expert demotivators. Skillful leadership is always a matter of nudging people in positive directions while respecting their ideas and autonomy – of empowering them to do what they’re good at in the service of something bigger than themselves. And for parents and CEOs alike, there’s a lot to be learned from that ancient teaching tool, the cautionary tale. 

Jim Collins, New York Times bestselling author of Good to Great and (with coauthor Morten T. Hansen) Great by Choice, sees a lot of cautionary tales in his line of work. A former teacher at the Stanford Graduate School of business, Collins now runs a “management laboratory” in Boulder, Colorado where he conducts research into what gets and keeps companies significantly ahead of (or behind) the competition. Collins has closely scrutinized the management practices of hundreds of businesses and served as an advisor to CEOs nationwide. The best leaders, he says, don’t worry about motivating people – they hire passionate employees and don’t extinguish their passion. 

What demotivates workers? 

1) Hype: a failure to acknowledge the real difficulties the organization faces.
2) Futurism: Always “pointing down the road” at distant goals and not at the tangible results of employees’ recent efforts. 
3) False democracy: Inviting people’s input when you’ve already made up your mind. 

What’s the Significance? 

Successful leadership does not require company camping trips or casual Fridays. It does, however, demand a basic grasp of human psychology. As a leader, you’re striving to achieve grand goals. But you can’t do it on your own. You need people (employees) to help you get there. It’s in your best interest, then, to facilitate their eagerness to play their part. And to recognize that they have goals of their own. 

Here the parenting metaphor breaks down. You don’t choose your children. Their goals are not necessarily compatible with your own. Still, you are responsible for their safety and progress. The right employee, however, wants many of the same things her employer wants, and if allowed to pursue her own goals in her own style (with some direction, of course), she will improve the business in completely unexpected ways. 

And that’s a key point: in addition to demotivating talented workers, an opaque and dictatorial leadership style can silence innovation from below, leaving the leader in charge of coming up with all the great ideas. Nobody’s that good – not even Steve Jobs. 

This post is part of the series Inside Employees’ Minds, presented by Mercer.

Photo Credit: Einar Muoni/

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