How to (de)Motivate an Employee?

Updated on April 12th, 2023

September 25th 2020

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  • Raising a salary can either motivate or demotivate an employee, depending on how it is executed.

  • A dysfunctional relationship between an employer and an employee has its own life-cycle.

  • Motivation is all about timing. When incentives to work come too late in the cycle, they start to demotivate an employee.

How To Motivate an Employee By Raising a Salary.

Motivating employees is an essential skill of every leader. A demotivated employee can not only lose the drive to continue their projects, but also affect the dynamics and productivity of the whole team. 

As it turns out, it is not difficult to either motivate or demotivate an employee. Rather the opposite – it is actually quite simple.

Let’s start will two real-world stories. Jim quit academia some time ago. He then decided to educate himself and retrain from experimental science to Data Science by taking online courses in programming and Machine Learning working on professional development. He soon found a job in a small startup in IT and quickly indulged in his new industry career.

Many people who come to work in startups, go through this honeymoon phase first. At the job interview, the company owners successfully sell them the vision of improving the world and working on behalf of society together.

And so they come to work excited, with high employee motivation and work hard to bring this vision to life. However, after a few months, they realize that the owners are just good salesmen. That they are not necessarily the protagonists that they claim to be but rather, they are mostly concerned about profits. So, the new employees are disappointed in such conditions and then there comes the mental dip.

Fortunately, this scenario didn’t happen in this case. When asked about his current state of mind, Jim grinned and said, “It’s fantastic! And they really appreciate me there. They even gave me the first raise after just a few months!”

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How To Demotivate an Employee By… Raising a Salary.

The second story is the story of Hannah. When asked, “How are you doing at work?”, she snorted and said, “I just quit my job!” She wasn’t especially happy about the fact that her employer didn’t give her the opportunity to use her intellectual potential and work on her professional development. 

The tasks that she was given, weren’t challenging and responsible enough for her. She said, “They gave me a senior position. They were paying me way too much given how simple my job was! This felt almost offensive to me.”

It was a surprising turn of events given that just two years before, she was more than enthusiastic about her job. She used to be so deep in love with the company’s vision in the past!

Based on these two stories, one might ask the question: when does a raise increase motivation, and when does it work the other way around?

It turns out that in certain circumstances, a reward from the employer can actually spoil the relationship between the employer and employee and improve employee motivation. Let’s get to the bottom of this phenomenon.

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Figure. The lifecycle of a dysfunctional relationship between an employer and an employee. When incentives to work come too late in the cycle, they start to demotivate an employee.

How To Demotivate an Employee: Phases Of a Conflict.

In every broken employer-employee relationship, there are a few phases of the conflict, and multiple events foreshadowing the eventual collapse. On their first day, every employee comes to their new job with high hopes and loads of enthusiasm as well as with high employee motivation.

After all, no one would accept a job from any boss if they were suspecting that it would be a disaster. Everything is so new and shiny — almost like a honeymoon!

Then, the employee starts learning about the company: all the written and unwritten rules, the procedures, the duties, the hierarchy, the social relations, the opportunities, the dos and don’ts.

Subsequently, the employee slowly starts integrating into the company culture. This requires developing an identity within the company. “What is my edge? What do I want to be known for in this company? How do I want to be perceived?” The integration process often goes smoothly.

But sometimes, something goes wrong—namely, the employee discovers that they can’t fulfill their ambitions related to career paths. They just can’t grow into what they would like to become under the umbrella of their current employer. They just know that their professional development is at stake.

This feeling often goes along with the feeling of being undervalued and/or not taken seriously enough. And this is when the tension starts.

The Phases of Descent.

So, the employee asks for changing/increasing their scope of responsibilities, promotion, or a raise. And, they immediately encounter resistance from the employer’s side.

It is because the employer has its vision for the company’s future. They don’t have any intention to change the company’s structure or culture for the employee for the sake of that person’s satisfaction or the necessity to build a career path. It’s rather that, they aim to reward the employee for the excelling performance within the current system.

Hence, the resistance. If the employer doesn’t notice the problem and continues with the projects without making some favours to the employee or giving some chance for professional development the only way from this point is down.

What happens then? Well, the employee’s motivation gradually drops. At some point, the connection between the employer and employee falls off into the “dead zone.” In this situation, every action from the other side is interpreted as a sign of bad intentions, even if the intentions were nothing but positive.

Since the employee feels frustrated about the fact that the reality much differs from their original expectations of the job, they are no longer willing to cooperate with the employer.

As a result, no standard motivation strategy (such as a prestigious business trip or a raise) could encourage the employee to work with a smile on their face. Typically, there is no motivation left at all at this point.

Usually, it means that the employee does the bare minimum at work, and is actively searching for other career options after working hours. At this point, a raise might even literally infuriate them rather than motivate them.

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The Dance.

The point is: that motivation is all about timing. Jim got a raise at the point when he was so fresh in the company that he didn’t even expect it to happen. Hannah got a raise when she was already so tired of her boss rejecting her ideas that nothing would make her happy at this point. 

And, that was way more than enough to demotivate an employee. Employers often treat giving a raise as a safety button in case the employee’s motivation goes down. But this doesn’t work!

Giving a raise, it’s the same as giving someone flowers: it works best when the person doesn’t expect the gift. Or, when they expect the gift and receive a bouquet that is even more beautiful than anticipated. On the contrary, it works the worst when they anticipated the gift, and got it one day later.

So, motivating an employee it’s like dancing. It is crucial to find the right points in time to make little pushes and pulls to lead the person in the right direction in a way that they don’t even feel led. Such as a little raise when they least expect it.

You can find more information on how to motivate your team in the book “Employee Engagement 2.0: How to Motivate Your Team for High Performance (a Real-World Guide for Busy Managers)” by Kevin E Kruse.

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Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N. (2020, September 25th). How to (de)Motivate an Employee? Retrieved from https://ontologyofvalue.com/how-to-demotivate-an-employee/

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