If you think that you've read every book on motivation and incentivizing employees and they're all pretty much the same, you haven't seen The Art of Demotivation by E.L. Kersten, PhD, recently published by Despair Ink, a division of his company, Despair Inc. (In its second printing, the book is only available online at www.despair.com.)
Kersten's goal with the book, which is in part based on his own experiences in the corporate world, is to turn every concept about employee rewards and appreciation inside out. After all, this is the same guy who took a jagged, rusty paring knife to the warm platitudes of Successories posters. (Instead of “ATTITUDE: A little thing that makes a BIG difference,” he gave us “APATHY: If We Don't Take Care of the Customer, Maybe They'll Stop Bugging Us.”)
Kersten is playing all this for yuks — even if not everybody gets the joke. Nonetheless, when Corporate Meetings & Incentives writer Bob Andelman spoke with him by phone from his Austin, Texas, offices, he found grains of truth in his approach to keeping employees down on the farm. And while Kersten's guide to corporate warfare — it's sort of Sun Tzu's The Art of War with a John Stewart zing — is promoted as being written for the high-stepping executive class, a careful reading shows that it is just as applicable to the huddled employee masses — if not more so.
The Art of Demotivation is intended as a guerilla management manifesto for “smart executives.” To that end, it comes with two dust jackets: One for the real book, and another for a fictional work, Ethics, Integrity, and Sacrifice in the Workplace. In his introduction, Kersten explains the duplicity: “For the sake of your company and perhaps your own safety, it is recommended that this cover be placed over the book immediately upon receipt of it. This will essentially render the book invisible to your employees, who have no interest in such subjects.”
The cloaking device — or “undercover” — is a brilliant concept, and one that came much cheaper than the original idea: a lock.
Not everybody gets the joke of Demotivation, particularly overseas, where one buyer wrote to Kersten and called the book “dangerous.” Another wrote, “Is this a joke? Because if it is, it's not very funny.”
Read on — but be warned from the start that Kersten's forked tongue is firmly lodged in his cheek.
CORPORATE MEETINGS & INCENTIVES: What experiences set you on the path to creating your company, Despair Inc.?
E.L. KERSTEN, PhD: I and the other two founders were working for an Internet service provider in the mid-1990s. It was a turbulent time, the beginning of the Internet boom. You couldn't open the newspaper without reading about a 23-year-old who had sold a company and become a deca-millionaire. We all joined this company with a promise of ownership in the form of stock. I believed the owner was well-intentioned, but he kept delaying. When he finally sold some stock, it was to an investor at an inflated price. Then he rolled out employee stock options at $63 a share. If he had done it when we joined, it would have been at 50 cents a share.
We had been working hard. We were trying to lay a foundation, build a business — and we did all this because we were promised stock options. We worked hard for an external reward, and the external reward was yanked out from under us.
One of the guys [who later became Kersten's business partner] received a Successories catalog. We started making fun of it. Their platitudes didn't reflect our experiences at all. He said, “We ought to start a company that sells parodies of these.”
When the Internet service provider we worked for was sold, we got some money that we used to start this company. But it wasn't the millions that we were hoping for.
CMI: Why do you believe that recognition and motivation are such flawed concepts?
KERSTEN: If the things that we recognize were truly meritorious or outstanding, they might not be [flawed]. But to make people feel good, there is a tendency to reward mediocrity.
Reward in and of itself is not bad, as long as you're rewarding the right things. In terms of motivation, it is such a slippery idea to begin with that it generally degenerates in the business world to making people enthusiastic and feeling good about themselves. Researchers distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. But the motivation disintegrates into pep rallies. Then as soon as employees leave the pep rallies [they are demotivated again].
This creates a cycle of perpetual immaturity, rather than the company finding people who give whatever it takes to do whatever they're paid to do.
A lack of motivation is seen by many people as an excuse for why employees don't produce what they said they would produce in job interviews or when being promoted. But motivation to do what you're paid to do doesn't make sense to me. If you've got a job, you've got an external motivation: to feed your family or sustain yourself! Your compensation or career path is an external motivator. My argument against motivation is the way it is seen as filling people with emotional gas, pointing them in a certain direction and saying, “Go!” It assumes they are perpetual adolescents and that you need to treat them as such.
CMI: Why do you think worker morale has reached such lows and so many people hate their jobs? Wouldn't it help if companies treated them better?
KERSTEN: If there was evidence that they were treated poorly. Going back to my adolescent analogy, most junior high and high school students think their parents are oppressive because they don't give them everything they want. But many junior high and high school students really have a pretty good life. It comes down to expectations. I don't know why people expect their jobs to be rewarding and fulfilling. If you're a surgeon and you save somebody's life, I could see that as very rewarding. Or if you're creative and you produce a work of art, I could see that.
But if, for example, you sell database software, how truly meaningful is that? It's lucrative, but who cares? It's not inherently meaningful!
I had a good job working for an Internet service provider, but I wouldn't say it was meaningful. I mean, if you create a great national support center, who cares?
I think people have a corporate ideal that is akin to a romantic ideal. When they're young, they're looking for “The One.” Over time they find this person isn't perfect. And they have to adjust.
In corporate life, they go to work and think that this job will help them to reach their unattainable fantasies: money, fame, affirmation. But inevitably, no matter how good you are at your job, you will lose a political battle. Someone won't like you. People, when they're confronted with that, grouse and complain and say, “Things are unfair!” They say, “My boss is an evil jerk! I do all the work, and they don't do anything!”
I read a report on Salary.com that said people waste two to three hours a day surfing the Internet at work. Sometimes they're purchasing things, sometimes reading blogs, sometimes zoning out. Well, if people have two to three hours a day to surf, they're probably not overworked.
CMI: The recognition industry claims it can measure the results of recognition programs through factors such as employee engagement surveys, customer satisfaction surveys, and retention rates. And it has been proven that companies that put programs into place — for example, Fortune's “Best Companies to Work For” — score higher in these surveys and retain more people. So, although these are indirect measures, something's working there, wouldn't you say?
KERSTEN: It depends a little on what your goals are. If your goals are employee satisfaction and retention, there's an easy way to do that: Overpay people and expect nothing from them. There's no mystery! You'll have very happy people who never leave.
Some people want to create a certain culture. Others are financially oriented. But I don't believe that employee satisfaction and retention necessarily correlate in any meaningful way with productivity, job growth, and the financial health of the organization.
If an organization has problems with productivity and people being focused on the goals of the organization, it's unlikely these things will solve the problem. On the other hand, they might fine tune and make it better.
In the first couple pages of my book, I talk about industry leaders, companies that are in the top 20 percent. Being an industry leader means that you have 80 percent who are nonleaders. For a genuine industry leader, I don't think there's anything wrong with making the workplace more pleasant. But General Electric and Jack Welch — the best CEO of the century! — had a forced ranking system and got rid of the bottom 20 percent every year. Those who don't perform are eliminated. What does that say about job satisfaction? For the bottom 20 percent, it's probably pretty low.
CMI: People like Bob Nelson, PhD, who writes for CMI, say that simple gestures, such as a thank-you note after a job well done, spur performance and build loyalty, and ultimately affect the bottom line. Are you saying that managers shouldn't say thank you?
KERSTEN: No, I wouldn't say that. I don't think there's anything wrong with being civil, decent, and appreciative. If you're genuinely grateful, by all means send a thank-you note. But if you're not, then sending a note is manipulative.
You've got to be careful. If an employee does something and gets a thank you, then the next time they don't, does that mean you are unhappy with them?
If you're grateful for the routine or mundane doing of a person's job, that is condescension — “I'm grateful you can do what I ask you to do.” It's like giving people points in school for showing up. It doesn't inspire people to do better.
CMI: If people aren't a company's greatest asset, what is?
KERSTEN: Obviously, the executives! (He laughs.) Sometimes it's the technology. Sometimes it's the processes. Sometimes it's the brand. At Nike, it's the brand. Certainly, it's not the shoes.
CMI: Do you have a low opinion of incentives for nonsales people, such as on-the-spot rewards, gift cards, dinners for two, that sort of thing?
KERSTEN: I simply have a low opinion of incentives for mediocrity, independent of where a person is in an organization.
CMI: Sales incentives are proven to drive sales, especially incremental sales. What's your opinion of them? How do you drive a sales force to achieve more if you don't offer incentives?
KERSTEN: Sales incentives are typically part of the compensation plan. They're given a base, and then there are incentives. Salespeople are externally motivated, given their dispensation. And I don't see anything wrong with that.
CMI: What is your opinion of incentive travel as a motivator?
KERSTEN: So you've got a bunch of people who are working and when they reach a certain goal, they get a trip to London? Hmm. I have no initial bias against it. If the reward is truly meritorious, and the people given the trip actually find it incentivizing, it could potentially be a great thing. And that's fine. But I don't personally understand why they would give a trip rather than cash. Because if you had the cash, you could pick your own trip.
CMI: Were you ever the personal recipient of any kind of recognition or reward when you were in the corporate world? Did your behavior change as a result?
KERSTEN: This is going to sound bad. But what I thought is they should have demanded more of me. And because they didn't, it was a condescending reward.
CMI: What was the reward?
KERSTEN: There were various rewards. A couple times it was cash. Other times it was dinner, that kind of stuff. Other times I did things that were very hard, and I believed most people could not have done them and nobody noticed. I thought, “Why did you give me a reward for a stupid thing and nobody noticed the hard things?”
CMI: Do you believe the “Noble Employee Myth” is just that — a myth?
KERSTEN: Yes, it's a bad thing because it leads to wrong solutions to employee problems. If you constantly assume the employee can't do anything wrong and a problem is the fault of the organization, then the employee is never held accountable, and the organization will bend over backward to accommodate new forms of incompetence.
The reason many people believe The Art of Demotivation works is in its characterization of employees and managers. It accentuates features that are true, but does it in a way that is an exaggeration. Managers are unaware they are doing the very thing they're accusing their employees of. They make life miserable for hard-working people. And then there really are people who emulate the characterization of the employees I describe.
Many of those come from my experience managing a huge customer support center. If out of 120 employees, 90 were good, hard-working people, then 30 exemplified things in the book. Yet the organization was constantly trying to accommodate those people.
I think people like the book because it's a characterization of corporate life in both directions.
ADVICE FROM E.L. KERSTEN, PHD: “Your Employees Should Feel Lucky Just Being Employed”
Here is just one example of the “executive level” advice on dealing with employee demands for recognition and motivation found in The Art of Demotivation:
“Reinforce the idea that your employees are lucky to have their jobs by placing newspaper or magazine articles in places where they congregate, such as a break room, that include bad economic news or chronicle the lives of families who have fallen upon tough times. … More personally, your managers can remind employees that they are lucky to be employed and let them know they have come close to being fired on several occasions.”