You wouldn’t think that it would be necessary to write a blog post about this, but I’ve found that when people are looking for ways to demotivate, demoralize, and otherwise just piss off their coworkers, they sometimes need that extra little oomf. You know, a way to kick things to another level, to push it to 11, to force their fingernails under the skin and give a coworker that helpful little squeeze. Of course, it’s all too easy to upset people in ways that make you the bad guy. The inappropriate comment, bad attitude, sloppy work, forgotten promise, etc. These might do the job, but they also impact your performance, and could potentially land you in hot water with HR. We can do better.
In Your Brain at Work, David Rock describes the SCARF model – a way of thinking about how to affect the threat and reward responses in social interactions. Although useful, he unfortunately and unimaginatively only focuses on minimizing the former and maximizing the latter. We’ll take the opposite approach.
So first, the basics. SCARF stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness:
Status is about relative importance to others. Certainty concerns being able to predict the future. Autonomy provides a sense of control over events. Relatedness is a sense of safety with others, of friend rather than foe. And fairness is a perception of fair exchanges between people. – David Rock, SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others
Each of these domains provides its own ways to demoralize your victim. Let’s break it down.
In my experience, most engineers (especially individual contributors) will swear up and down that they’re driven by a passion for solving problems, learning new things, and just generally “making stuff”. This one is interested in obscure technologies, that one by big data analysis, the other by the ticking time bomb of operations. We’re all nerds – who has time to think about status and titles? It’s just not in our DNA, right?
OK, back to planet Earth. You know, where we simultaneously scoff at people “unduly motivated by title,” make decisions by HiPPO, accept title increases in lieu of pay, and just generally devote a massive amount of our cerebral cortex to tracking, protecting, and enhancing status. This isn’t a sign of moral weakness, and it isn’t because we’re posers, sycophants, or insecure careerists – it’s because we’re human, and this is what humans do.
Perceived threats to status can be devastating, and can escalate a casual conversation to a primal threat in an instant. The key to exploiting this weakness is to understand that status is simultaneously a fundamental human need, and in the context of the workplace, no more than a useful fiction. Any responsibility or task you’ve delegated can be revoked without notice, any evaluation or decision can be overridden without explanation, any decision normally performed by one of your direct reports can be made and enacted without informing them. Here are a couple things to try:
- Withhold information
- Don’t include people in decisions that will materially affect them
- Reassign responsibilities arbitrarily
- Deliver negative feedback in public
People are funny. They just love for things to be predictable. Adding a little uncertainty yanks them out of their complacency, prevents them from reacting on auto-pilot, and forces them to re-engage their brains. Which isn’t so bad, is it?
Well sure, if the uncertainty is related to some aspect of technology, then it can provide a stimulating challenge, and potentially pull people deeper into their work. However, if your goal is to distract and refocus attention to areas orthogonal to work product, then increasing the ambiguity and uncertainty arbitrarily is an excellent strategy. There’s a psychological weight to a lack of closure, especially when there’s nothing that can be done to address it. Technology can be researched, project plans can be written, teams can be organized – people will try to gain control over a situation if you let them, which is why it’s important to put them into inescapably ambiguous situations. Not knowing where they stand, especially with their boss, can be a crushing distraction, to be turned over and over in their minds without hope for resolution.
Here are some tried and true methods to keep people on their toes:
- Leave people in limbo between projects
- Make promises, with vague dates
- Make promises, then blame other departments for failing to come through (HR, Legal, and Accounting are particularly good scapegoats, as they run on their own sets of unknowable, incomprehensible rules)
- Don’t provide feedback until the year-end review
- Expert level: skip the year-end review
People like to believe that they’re the captains of their own destinies. In fact, the belief that one has the ability to change one’s situation is about as good a functional definition of optimism as you can find. On the opposite end of the spectrum lies learned helplessness, a state in which organisms have been beaten down to the point that they don’t even try to escape any more (seriously, check out the link – it’s fascinating stuff).
As a manager, you can undermine people’s sense of autonomy pretty easily. You get to choose their tasks, delegate responsibilities, demand updates, etc., etc. To be honest, it isn’t much of a challenge, and many managers are just phoning it in by choosing this as their weapon of choice. But, while I might quibble over the lack of creativity involved, it’s hard to argue with results. Attacking autonomy is an extremely effective method of demoralization.
Here are some of the most popular approaches:
- Assign people to teams or projects without discussion, or consideration of their interests
- Don’t explain the underlying goals behind tasks – theirs is not to wonder why
- Constantly second-guess judgment
- Unnecessarily require complicated sign-off procedures for straightforward decisions
People like to think that they’re important, and not just in a general, abstract sense. They want to feel that they’re part of an “in” group, and that people value their membership in that group. Feeling like part of a team increases trust, reduces stress and friction, and improves productivity. It should go without saying that this is fertile ground.
It’s easy to prevent a deep sense of relatedness from forming – after all, we’re all very busy, and even if you wanted to, it would be hard to spend the time necessary to develop a strong relationship with each of your team members. But to truly destroy any sense of common purpose or values requires dedication and hard work.
- Don’t take someone out to lunch on their first day (you want to set the right tone from the start, and this can be a surprisingly effective tool for alienation)
- Frequently cancel 1:1s / skip meetings
- Keep all conversations strictly professional – avoid all humanizing chitchat
- Don’t share information until the absolute last minute
- Any apology for mistakes made should be as pro forma as possible
- Be difficult to find
The above suggestions refer to your own relationships with team members, but it shouldn’t have to stop there. In the classic technical management book Peopleware, DeMarco and Lister enumerate a number of methods guaranteed to prevent a team from jelling. They are:
- Defensive management – don’t trust people to do their jobs
- Bureaucracy – the more TPS reports, the better
- Physical separation – breaking up teams can always be justified in the name of space constraints
- Fragmentation of people’s time – constant interruptions prevent people from doing great work
- Quality reduction of the product – don’t let a team jell over shared love for a product
- Phony deadlines – it’s hard to overemphasize the impact these will have on a team’s morale
- Clique control – break up any team that’s getting too effective
No one likes to be the sucker. You can have an identical situation, with an identical outcome, and a completely different reaction if someone feels that you’re treating them unfairly. The Ultimatum Game (one player chooses how to divide a pot of money, the other player chooses whether to accept it) is an extreme example – people will give up a meaningful amount of money to punish the other player if they think they’re being taken advantage of.
This goes double for the workplace. Actual or imagined inequities in terms of pay, benefits, equipment, cube or office size, or just about anything else can spark outrage. Likewise, different rules for different people or departments can cause trouble. Just look at how people react when CEOs get massive bonuses, even as they ask the rank and file to take a pay cut during a “difficult period.”
There are a million ways to exploit this weakness, but here are some popular options:
- Deny a standard perk
- Pay below scale
- Make an accusation of poor performance with no supporting data
- When challenged, promise to follow up
- Don’t bother
- Ask the team to work late or over the weekend, but don’t show up
- Don’t offer comp time
- Play favorites
- Avoid establishing clear standards – this allows you to arbitrarily punish one person and reward another for identical behavior
This is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. Get creative! There are so many ways to damage relationships, productivity, and retention – you won’t want to stick to the limited examples provided here. Some people, of course, will react more to one kind of attack than another, and it can take time to identify the techniques that work best for you. Stick with it! With time, effort, and attention, you’ll be able to bring your F game as well as the worst.