How NOT to motivate your employees

Liz WalzThroughout the past 10 years, I’ve served as a supervisor a few times. The first time around I was asked to hire and then oversee the work of an editor and a Web master. The two gentlemen I selected were just a few years younger than me, and I treated them as friends and team members more than employees. Because they both got the job done and responded to the guidance I provided, I didn’t think much about how to be a good manager.

The second time around was only a few months later, but it was quite different. I was hired as the executive editor for a two-person magazine edit team, and when the managing editor left to go to graduate school a few months later, I needed to hire someone to replace her. Only one qualified person responded to the initial advertisement for the position, and my boss told me to hire him despite my serious reservations. During the interview process, this middle-aged freelance writer told me he had applied for the job because he needed health insurance to pay for some surgery.

That was the beginning of a bad year. My new employee and I were tasked with producing a daily e-mail newsletter and a monthly magazine by ourselves. But while I was frantically scrambling to meet each new deadline, my managing editor was about as laid back as they come. He arrived on time each day, plodded through his assignments and left as soon as his required time was up, whether his work was done or not.

I could not have been more frustrated, and I had no idea how to instill in him the sense of urgency I felt about our work. I tried to use words to pressure him into working harder, to convey some small iota of the stress I felt about our situation and finally to squeeze the work out of him faster. This had no effect.

When I think about it now, it’s no surprise. How can we expect any of our relationships to work if the wants and needs of both parties aren’t being met? And what are the chances they will be met if we never ask the question of what those wants and needs are? Like many supervisors, I assumed that the salary and the benefits that went along with the job my company was offering was plenty of motivation. But studies have consistently shown that employee satisfaction is about a lot more than just money. And there’s probably nothing more demotivating than a boss who believes the key to increased productivity is more pressure, especially in today’s economy when we’re all under plenty of pressure already.

As you might have guessed by now, I’m no expert on what motivates people in their jobs. But it’s an area that holds great interest for me.

That’s why the next book on my reading list is “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” by Daniel H. Pink, set to debut in January. I’ll let you know if it holds any great lessons for the marine industry.

Here are some of the other books I’ve read this year: Seth Godin’s “Tribes,” Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval’s “The Power of Small,” Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles’ “Raving Fans,” Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff’s “Groundswell” and Juliette Powell’s “33 Million People in the Room.”

I’d love to hear what you’ve been reading lately and how it has made a difference in your working life. Share your reading list or your thoughts on employee motivation by commenting below.


  1. Am I the only one who truly hates that giant pop-up from Shakespeare?

    All I want to do is read an article, yet I am forced to stare at an ad for what seems like an eternity. If you must smother your readers with giant ads for products they have no interest in, at least give us a ‘no thanks’ option. Shakespeare must be great sponsors for you, but as a reader, it is annoying as hell.

  2. Liz – key topic for any business, for sure. My years as a high school teacher stood me in good stead when I had to hire people and deal with them over a span of time. The essence of what the high schoolers ‘taught me’ was that “FAIR AND FIRM” most always work with people. It doesnt hurt either to apply that Old Rule that you treat others like you want to be treated. Aint nothing new about those key tenants of dealing with people/employees.
    Thanks for all the good work that you do, Liz. Enjoy your writing. Best wishes, Ed Lofgren

  3. I agree the Shakespeare ad is annoying and necessary to pay the bills. For me it is counter productive when wishing to motivate subscriber readership. I too, would welcome the option to opt out of viewing the ad.

  4. I have a decent understanding of the things that go into job satisfaction, pay plan theory, employee motivation, etc. One thing I have learned, however, from working with many, many successful business owners is that just the right amount of fear for one’s job goes a long way to getting things done correctly and on time.

  5. Liz,

    No single formula works for every employee. Many respond to being given a sense of autonomy and ownership of the responsibilities. Some respond only to fear. Personally, I make it a policy to terminate the latter, as I hate to have to watch employees every minute of every day. What I can tell you confidently after 30 years in the business, i that pay and benefits are never sufficient in and by themselves.

  6. liz,

    your on to something here and look foward to your next posting on what motivates people. 30 plus years in this industry have learned a few things about people. your quite correct that employees at any level are motivated for many things far beyond what they are paid. where I’ve seen success…I’ve seen passion, team work, knowledge, loyality and the ultra successful companies in this industry…is motivated from the top by a simple rule….treating employees as they would want to be treated. they see their employees as team members, dealers as a asset and deadlines as something that must be met.

    those only motivated by fear of their job or money will never work for me. the manufacture that suffers from greed, ego-driven or only selfish motives would be wize in what a very wize man once told me: “have you ever seen a u-haul behind a hurst?”

    where I’ve seen long term employees working at a manufacture or dealership….have noticed from the top down its someone that started most of the time at the bottom themselves. they understand why deadlines are important to be met. goals, too.

    lets see what your list comes up with…


  7. hi Liz,
    You have hit on my pet peeve. I believe that having the right employees is a must, so I guess, I would want to start at the job interview. An Employer has no time to micro-manage his employees. All employees should understand, either they perform and do what is expected of them or they are gone. They should also understand that they represent the company they work for and that everything they do reflects on the buisness. As far as hireing someone who doesnt even have any interest in the company, I would have never hired them… so motavation would not have been an option.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *