The Worst Way to Motivate Someone

The emotional vicissitudes at work in marriage also operate in the workplace, where they take similar forms. Criticisms are voiced as personal attacks rather than complaints that can be acted upon; there are ad hominem charges with defensiveness and dodging of responsibility and finally, to stonewalling or the embittered passive resistance that comes from feeling unfairly treated. Indeed, one of the more common forms of destructive criticism in the workplace, says one business consultant, is a blanket, generalized statement like “you’re screwing up,” delivered in a harsh, sarcastic, angry tone, providing neither a chance to respond nor any suggestion of how to do things better. It leaves the person receiving it feeling helpless and angry.  From the vantage point of emotional intelligence, such criticism displays an ignorance of the feelings it will trigger in those who receive it, and the devastating effect those feelings will have on their motivation, energy and confidence in doing their work.

This destructive dynamic showed up in a survey of managers who were asked to think back to times they blew up at employees and , in the heat of the moment, made a personal attack. The angry attacks had effects much like they would in a married couple: the employees who received them reacted most often by becoming defensive, making excuses or evading responsibility. Or they stonewalled-that is, tried to avoid all contact with the manager who blew up at them. If they had been subjected to the same emotional microscope that John Gottman used with married couples, these employees would no doubt have been shown to be thinking the thoughts of innocent victimhood  or righteous indignation typical of husbands or wives who feel unfairly attacked. If their physiology were measured, they would probably also display the flooding that reinforces such thoughts. And yet the managers were only further annoyed and provoked by these responses, suggesting the beginning of a cycle that, in the business world, ends in the employee quitting or being fired-the business equivalent of a divorce.
Indeed, in a study of 108 managers and white-collar workers, inept criticism was ahead of mistrust, personality struggles, and disputes over power and pay as a reason for conflict on the job. And experiment done at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute shows just how damaging to working relationships a cutting criticism can be. In a simulation, volunteers were given the task of creating an ad for a new shampoo. Another volunteer (a confederate) supposedly judged the proposed ads; volunteers actually received one of two prearranged criticisms. One critique was considerate and specific. But the other included threats and blamed the person’s innate deficiencies, with remarks like, “Didn’t even try; can’t seem to do anything right” and “Maybe it’s just lack of talent. I’d try to get someone else to do it.”

Understandably, those who were attacked became tense and angry and antagonistic, saying they would refuse to collaborate or cooperate on future projects with persons who gave the criticism. Many indicated they would want to avoid contact altogether-in other words, they felt like stonewalling. The harsh criticism made those who received it so demoralized that they no longer tried as hard at their work and, perhaps most damaging, said they no longer felt capable of doing well. The personal attack was devastating to their morale.

Many managers are too willing to criticize, but frugal with praise, leaving their employees feeling that they only hear about how they’re are doing when they make a mistake. This propensity to criticism is compounded by managers who delay giving any feedback at all for long periods. “Most problems in an employee’s performance are not sudden; they develop slowly overtime,” J. R. Larson, a University of Illinois at Urbana psychologist, notes. ” When the boss fails to let his feelings be known promptly, it leads to his frustration building up slowly. Then, one day, he blows up about it. If the crititicism had been given earlier on, the employees would have been able to correct the problem. Too often people criticize only when things boil over, when they get too angry to contain  themselves. And that’s when they give the criticism in the worst way, in a tone if biting sarcasm, calling to mind a long list of grievances they had kept to themselves, or making threats. Such attacks back-fire. They are received as an affront, so the recipient becomes angry in return. It’s the worst way to motivate someone.

Culled from Daniel Goleman‘s Emotional Intelligence


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