“DON'T UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF DEMOTIVATION.” That's the warning of E.L. Kersten, PhD, author of the newly released The Art of Demotivation (2005, Despair Ink). In his sarcastic and scathing style, Kersten, a former university professor who had an unsuccessful stint in the private sector before forming Despair Inc. (www.despair.com) in 1998, slams what he calls the “fantasies of infinite human potential so often advanced by the motivation industry.” If employees provide the competitive advantage for the top 20 percent of companies that are leaders in motivating their people, he says, then employees actually become a competitive disadvantage for the other 80 percent of the companies out there — the “average or substandard ones” (the ones that most people work for).

The book is causing a stir in the incentive industry — and understandably so. It's hard for people whose mission is to inspire and incite employee performance to read Kersten's words without an occasional twinge.

But the fact is, incentives don't always motivate people the way that they are intended to. Recent research by Maritz Incentives found that 52 percent of salespeople who qualify for incentives at their companies feel that they have little to no chance of winning. They perceive incentives to be unfair, unattainable, or poorly communicated. So they don't even try.

That's what Tom Weidl, vice president of sales and service at Sunmark Federal Credit Union, Schenectady, N.Y., found with his company's program. “We were motivating maybe a handful of people — the superstars who win all the time.” The rest of the staff were either resentful or just didn't care.

With the wrong incentive structure, “You can create a high percentage of losers in your organization,” says Weidl, who has since revamped the rules with great success.

Sometimes (and I agree with Kersten on this one), there's a fine line between motivation and demotivation. It's up to us to point our people — and our incentive programs — in the right direction. Don't miss our story, on page 20.
Barbara Scofidio


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