Know how some managers seem hell-bent on making their employees miserable? Here’s a blueprint to guide them to their goal: staffers who feel that no matter what they do, they simply don’t matter.
According to Christine Comaford, author of SmartTribes: How Teams Become Brilliant Together, when leaders say or do something that makes employees feel insignificant (and/or frightened or isolated; the three tend to work together), they revert to the fight/flight/freeze part of the brain — falling into what Comaford calls the “Critter State.”
Once in this state, all innovation and collaboration skills fall by the wayside, and every decision boils down to a single question: What will keep me safe right now?
Not exactly the motivated/engaged/let’s-jump-in-and-get-this-accomplished attitude the experts tell us we’re aiming for.
These’ll make ’em feel worthless
Nonetheless, there are an awful lot of managers who (consciously or unconsciously) regularly undermine their workers’ sense of self-worth. She offers a comprehensive plan for those supervisors seeking to kill employee spirit:
- Don’t respond to their emails. Sure, managers are busy, and sure, their employees know that — but the Critter State doesn’t spring from the rational part of the brain, Comaford says. Instead of thinking, Oh, the boss will get back to me when she has a moment, they think, She doesn’t like my idea. She doesn’t like me. I feel rejected. I don’t matter.
“When an employee emails the boss, especially when that email asks for your approval or contains sensitive content, she’s putting herself out there,” says Comaford. “Always respond — even if it’s just to say, ‘I need a little time to think about that, but I’ll get back to you in a day or two.’”
- Don’t give them feedback — positive or negative. When people matter to us, we want them to know they’ve done a good job. If they haven’t done a good job, we want them to know that too, so they can improve. To the employee’s Critter Brain, Comaford says, silence means managers don’t care enough to let them know either way.
“Hopefully, managers are giving feedback in performance evaluations, but give it informally as well,” advises Comaford. “A simple ‘Good job writing that proposal’ means a lot. And while it’s less fun to hear ‘You need to work on the close to your sales pitch,’ when an employee starts getting better results, he’ll know his supervisor cared enough to speak up.”
- Acknowledge people only when they make mistakes. This makes them feel like a faulty cog that must be repaired to keep the company machine running smoothly. To let them know they matter, managers need to make a positive personal connection with employees as often as possible. Supervisors should be specific about what they like and let workers know their unique contribution makes a real difference to the company.
“Better yet, make a point of praising them publicly,” says Comaford. “Social rewards are extremely powerful — far more powerful than cash rewards, in fact.”
- Don’t celebrate victories. No, just getting paid isn’t reward enough for doing a great job. (Again, a paycheck can feel like oil for the cog—necessary, but not meaningful.) When a team has an especially significant win, managers should make a point to order in a special lunch and celebrate the team company-wide.
“Team victory celebrations foster a sense of belonging and camaraderie — which go hand in hand with mattering,” notes Comaford.
- Play favorites. In many companies, there are certain team members who are perceived as “above the law” or in the “in crowd.” These people tend not to be held accountable for their lack of performance, and they often get the lion’s share of raises, promotions or perks, even if they don’t deserve them. And yes, says Comaford, other employees notice.
- Burn them out. Force employees to slog away like slaves, working long hours and completing one high-stress task after another, day after day after day. Not only will they feel that management doesn’t care about their well-being, they’ll burn out. Yes, from time to time we all have to exert extra effort …but no one can sustain such a pace forever.
Comaford points out that this dynamic starts when leaders “self-sacrifice.” Even if managers don’t tell employees they have to work until 8 p.m. every night, they see the boss do it and feel that they’re expected to do so as well.