How to Stop Killing Your Employees’ Desire (and Ability) to Work

Are you killing your employees’ desire to work?

I don’t mean, are you giving them too much work? Often, that’s a challenge employees can rise to. No, I mean are you actively killing their desire – no, strike that, their ability – to do the work you need them to do?

Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer have been justly receiving a good deal of press during the last many months for their book The Progress Principle. For the book, published by Harvard Business Press, Amabile and Kramer “collected confidential electronic diaries from 238 professionals in seven companies, each day for several months. All told, those diaries described nearly 12,000 days – how people felt, and the events that stood out in their minds.”

From that, they learned (as reported in The Washington Post) “How to Completely, Utterly Destroy an Employee’s Work Life, finding:

In fact, on one-third of those 12,000 days, the person writing the diary was either unhappy at work, demotivated by the work, or both. That’s pretty efficient work-life demolition, but it leaves room for improvement.

Step 1: Never allow pride of accomplishment. …

Step 2: Miss no opportunity to block progress on employees’ projects. …

Step 3: Give yourself some credit. …

Step 4: Kill the messengers. …”

The power of progress in meaningful work

Then, in the McKinsey Quarterly, Amabile and Kramer discussed, How Leaders Kill Meaning at Work, highlighting four traps:

To better understand the role of upper-level managers, we recently dug back into our data: nearly 12,000 daily electronic diaries from dozens of professionals working on important innovation projects at seven North American companies. We selected those entries in which diarists mentioned upper- or top-level managers — 868 narratives in all. … In short, our survey showed that most executives don’t understand the power of progress in meaningful work. And the traps revealed by the diaries suggest that most executives don’t act as though progress matters.

Trap 1: Mediocrity signals

Trap 2: Strategic ‘attention deficit disorder’

Trap 3: Corporate Keystone Kops

Trap 4: Misbegotten ‘big, hairy, audacious goals’ ”

The importance of meaningful work

Between the two articles, Amabile and Kramer speak well to advice I and several others have given time and again – the importance of meaningful work. The closing statement from the McKinsey Quarterly says it all:

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As an executive, you are in a better position than anyone to identify and articulate the higher purpose of what people do within your organization. Make that purpose real, support its achievement through consistent everyday actions, and you will create the meaning that motivates people toward greatness. Along the way, you may find greater meaning in your own work as a leader.”

I would add one bit of clarity on the “consistent everyday actions” – recognize, praise and appreciate people for their efforts and actions that support your organization’s purpose. That makes it real to employees, giving them the sense of meaning they need.

Have you ever been caught in one of the four traps? Have you ever felt your boss following any of the four steps to make you miserable at work?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at