Motivation Case Study: a demotivated office

When I read through my “Motivating people, not dogs” post after having published it, I wondered if my tough approach was unintentionally letting the manager off the hook.

It was this line that made me jump up with concern:

… if we make their lack of motivation more about us as managers rather than about them, we turn their failure into our failure, and give them an easy way out.

If this is so, then surely it works the other way around too? Can we turn our failure into their failure by not accepting that we are the major influence in the motivation of our teams.

The assumption throughout my argument was that the manager was competent – not perfect, but solid enough to live up to the end part of the post where I stated that it was the manager’s responsibility:

… to remove the demotivating factors as far as possible, and to manage the team properly …

… but you know what they say about assuming things: it makes an ass out of whoever it is that tells you what they say about assuming things.

So, OK, my assumption covers me, but I got me to thinking about road testing this with a case study based on the worst working environment I’d ever known.

It’s not a perfect example, because the manager was failing, but I wanted to look at whether or not the team themselves were right to make the manager entirely responsible for the appalling levels of motivation.


The Case Study: a demotivated office

The job was data entry, and I’m a dab hand at that. I can type like nobody’s business, and could get into a zonal trance and whip through the work like an efficient machine. I was one of three data-entry clerks, in a room of about six or seven people. One of them was a cool-looking punk guy who was extremely nice. Upon interrogation he shamefacedly admitted that he was actually listening to Andrew Lloyd-Webber musicals on his Walkman*. I know you shouldn’t judge, but still …

The office had a terrible atmosphere. People barely spoke to each other, and certainly not to me. Their blank empty stares in response to every attempt at engagement just screamed disapproval of everything I said or did. Eventually I lost confidence, and just stayed in the corner with my own dodgy musical choices.

One day when I was alone in the office with the main guy; I said something like:

This office seems really unfriendly, and I feel very excluded. Is there some reason why I’m being treated like this?

And he said something like:

You may have noticed that the main problem here is Claire

(Claire was the manager, I changed the name – it’s not even like Claire, so don’t try to guess).

That was the most demotivated team I’ve ever worked with – and it was, in their opinion, all the manager’s fault.

But is this fair? Was it all her fault?

It’s true that the manager wasn’t delivering in her role as leader of the team, but according to my big tough theory of each person’s motivation being their own responsibility, the team members should still have done something about it.

I don’t think they should have exacerbated the situation by huffily performing a mean-spirited work-to-rule.

Had they taken responsibility for their own motivation, they wouldn’t have put up with such a dysfunctional situation. I mean, Claire (she was the manager remember), wasn’t a bully, she didn’t mistreat anyone, she just wasn’t engaged and wasn’t any good at being a manager.

This is difficult, but it’s not an insurmountable obstacle.

So, in the absence of any scientific research or objective analysis whatsoever, I have decided that even in this extreme example of a dysfunctional office, my theory holds water.



* Yes I said “Walkman“, that’s how long ago this was.

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