“Oh, and remember, next Friday is Hawaiian shirt day!” – Bill Lumbergh, Office Space

I hate the sound of a telephone.

I’d just settled in for a morning meeting with my team when my secure office telephone rang. Only a handful of people knew or used the number, and all of them occupied a seat somewhere within shouting distance of the commanding general. “Hey, what are you doing right now?” the chief of staff asked. I’d been around long enough to know what that meant and arguing that I had a full calendar wasn’t going to make any difference. “What you need me to be doing right now? I responded. “I need you to be at the conference center in 20 minutes to give the command brief to a bunch of business leaders. I have other stuff to do this morning.”

And you assumed I had nothing better to do, I thought to myself. Hanging up the phone, I dismissed my team and grabbed my headgear as I headed out the door. I had a few minutes to find a little false motivation, so I didn’t look as annoyed as I felt. The only thing worse than having someone knowingly waste your time is projecting your irritability onto others. These people were the commanding general’s guests and I owed it to him to put our best face forward.

6 Ways to Demotivate Others at Work

Some people possess an innate talent for sucking the life out of others. It’s bad enough to deal with these people on a daily basis, and worse yet if you have to work for one. As leaders, they drive an organization and its people to new lows of unproductiveness, usually without knowing the reasons why. The film Office Space is a case study in this phenomenon, albeit a truly entertaining one. From Bill Lumbergh to the Bobs, from Nina in accounts payable to the annoying guy at Chachki’s, demotivation is everywhere.

So, is this you? Are you the office energy vampire? What does demotivation look like?

1. Toxic leadership.

There’s no faster way to crush the motivation of your workforce than to demonstrate the kind of sociopathy that drives other people to seek mental health care. Toxic leaders are as destructive as they are exhausting. But they get results—typically by walking on the backs of others—so they’re tolerated, even when they shouldn’t be.

2. Lack of vision.

I’d almost rather work for a sociopath than someone who has no idea what they’re doing or where they want to lead the organization. A leader without vision usually leaves the organization to flail aimlessly for a purpose while they muddle their way along trying to look busy and avoid accountability. It’s hard for a team to focus on what matters when they aren’t sure what that is.

3. Poor communication.

If there’s one thing we ask of a leader, it’s to communicate the what (what do you need done), the why (why is it important), and the when (when is the deadline). It’s the bare minimum, but it’s a pretty simple formula. If nothing else, it ensures your team knows what they need to know to be productive, and they know why it matters.

4. Wasted time.

No matter where you work or what you do, time is money. Your people only have so much time in a day to accomplish the tasks you’ve assigned them, so don’t waste it. When you do, it signals that you don’t value them, their work, or their time. None of which are good. And, if you’re having them do something because it’s a waste of your time, it’s probably a good bet that it’s a waste of their time, too. No TPS reports, please.

5. Lack of appreciation.

Different people are motivated in different ways. Some like awards, some like money, some like time off. But one immutable fact is shared by all: no one likes to have their hard work go unrecognized. If you’re one of those leaders who struggles to acknowledge others, find something else to do.

6. Poor leadership.

This is the catch all for everything from micromanagement to a hostile work environment, from tolerating mediocre performance in some while setting unrealistic expectations for others. Even with the best of intentions, bad leaders are fierce demotivators. Get feedback from your team and work to be the best you can be. Don’t take away anyone’s red swingline stapler.

MOtivate Your Team

Don’t give your team an endless case of the Mondays. Motivate them. Lead them. And let them know that they matter.




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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.