By learning how to demotivate employees, you can begin to understand the psychological drivers great leaders use to motivate and inspire.

We’ve all had bad days in which we said something that we later regretted. So, let’s make sure we all start off knowing that it isn’t always intentional.

When given the opportunity to lead, we may say things to employees that we shouldn’t or wish we hadn’t.

Inevitably, there are times at work in which we feel certain negative emotions:

  • Overwhelmed
  • Under pressure
  • Discouraged
  • Frustrated
  • Annoyed

Unfortunately, in these moments it can be easy to make an employee on our team feel devalued and misunderstood even when we intended to do the very opposite.

No one comes to work and seeks to purposely act out the “How to demotivate employees” tips. Instead, this behavior is usually the result of:

  • Leaders letting events negatively influence their communication – in both content and delivery style – to people
  • Leaders not understanding what their team members want and need to hear to improve performance or meet an important goal

Regardless of the organizational function you lead – whether it’s a sales team, service team, finance or marketing team – let’s address how to demotivate employees and some alternatives that might work better.

This is all part of a larger conversation about practicing emotional intelligence and developing self-awareness as a leader.

A quick primer on self-image

Over our lifetimes, we have experiences and interactions with other people that we store away in our mental file cabinet. These can be both positive and negative, and can come from both well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning sources:

  • Parents
  • Siblings and other family members
  • Teachers
  • Coaches
  • Peers and acquaintances
  • Close friends

These memories – or “files” – that we accumulate over the years mold our self-image and sense of self-worth. When triggered or when we face a similar situation to something we dealt with previously, we tend to upload certain files that reinforce our perceived image and worth.

This process is largely automatic and sub-conscious.

As a leader, every time you engage with a team member you have the power to:

  • Motivate or demotivate employees
  • To build up or tear down

You may see your employees as adult professionals in a workplace, but the “files” they pull up in response to the words you say may originate from as far back as their childhood.

It’s incredibly important to be careful in choosing your words with your employees. You may push them to do the opposite of what you’re trying to accomplish – resulting in withdrawal, avoidance and disengagement. So, let’s get into it.

How to demotivate employees – and what you should do instead

1. Negative, destructive criticism

               You’re useless. Who hired you?

               You’re too soft, too slow, too detailed, too fast, too friendly.

               If you are going to speak, have something to say.

               Can’t you do anything right?

You must be careful here. You may think it or even feel it, but as soon as you say it, you have now belittled them while pointing out the things you think they’re bad at. To the employee on the receiving end of these statements, it feels personal.

Remember: Everyone was once a child. Examples of “files” that employees may pull up from their life experiences in response to destructive criticism may include:

                You’re stupid.

                You’re too tall, too short.

                You’re too fat, too skinny.

                The end result is that an employee feels like they’ll never be good enough.

What to do instead: Offer healthy, constructive feedback.

  • Frame your feedback around how they can be an asset to your team.
  • Describe how they can overcome a specific behavior or do an even better job.
  • Always provide a way for an employee to move forward and improve oneself. Explain the purpose behind it.
  • Numb the sting of any negativity with positive praise. Point out things they do well that can help them in making an improvement.

It’s less about personal attacks and more about: Try doing X, Y and Z to help our team achieve our quarterly goal.

Keep in mind, the worst thing you can do is offer no feedback at all and leave people in the dark as to whether they’re doing a good job.

2. Unfair comparisons

               The other team is outperforming us. What’s wrong with you all?

               The new people catch on more quickly than you.

               Look at their results. Why aren’t you doing a better job?

This is when you compare the best attribute of another employee, team or even a competitor company with the weakest attribute of your team or an individual.

Pay attention as you make the comparison because the circumstances or environment could be quite different. Or, the employees undergoing comparison may not understand what the other party is doing differently. Your team may lack the proper context and explanation from you. They’ll become frustrated and ready to quit.

There’s a chance your remarks may pull “files” from childhood like these:

               Why can’t you be more like your sibling? He/she is so smart and talented.

               Why can’t you do better in school like your friend? I bet his/her parents are so proud.

               They are so much fun, what happened to you?

What to do instead: If you’re going to compare parties, do it on a level playing field.

Explain to your team or individual employees what success looks like and the path they should take to get there.

Make sure you recognize the differences in the other teams. Your team will appreciate that you see differences in environment, tenure and resources.

  • Study what other, similarly situated parties are doing to get the desired results.
  • Then put together a plan for how your employees can adapt their behavior, actions or focus.
  • Make sure employees understand how they can apply best practices from the more successful group.

If certain employees seem to be struggling compared to others, talk with them individually to find out what’s going on. See if there’s anything you can do to help or accommodate their personal situation.

3. Guilt, shame or blame

               I’d hit my targets if I had a better team. This has never happened to me except now.

               You have no idea how much heat I take for you.

               I spent time putting this together, and you aren’t paying attention.

If you say things like this, the message that employees receive is: You’re the problem. Everything would improve if you just weren’t there.

In this scenario, what sort of childhood “files” do employees associate with your words, and what sorts of negative reactions could they spark?

               You have no idea how much your mother/father and I sacrifice for you.

               I never get to enjoy myself because of you.

               We would be doing so much better financially if we didn’t have to spend so much money on you.

It’s safe to say, feeling like a burden doesn’t make anyone feel terribly valuable. It’s a quick way to demotivate employees. So, even if what you’re saying may be true, remember these statements put the full burden on the other person and removes all responsibility from you.

What to do instead: Strategize how to turn the situation around.

As a leader, take responsibility for communicating effectively, especially when times are tough.

One of the greatest opportunities as a leader is to inspire. If the team isn’t performing well, first look to your own actions.

  • Have you trained your team sufficiently?
  • Do they understand optimal work processes, procedures and best practices?
  • Do they have goals to work toward? Do they have clear expectations?
  • How often do you communicate with them?
  • Do you seek their input on identifying opportunities for improvement?
  • How could you improve in your style of motivating and inspiring others to succeed?
  • What type of work environment and culture have you fostered?

Since it’s tough to change others, it’s always good for change to start with you.

If an employee is struggling for other reasons, address the issue with them professionally and privately.

  • Find out whether any barriers to their success exist and how they can be overcome.
  • Create a performance-improvement plan and a realistic timetable.
  • Identify additional training or continuing education that could be helpful.

4. Unrealistic view of failure

               Don’t even try. Your track record is terrible; you should just give up.

               You’re a complete failure.

               There’s nothing more to say – just look at your performance.

This is when you label the person a failure instead of the event or circumstance. People can learn and grow from their experiences. Be careful not to miss out on a great contributor by labeling them a failure.

Consider the vital role that failure can play along the way. Failure is a learning opportunity, informing us what doesn’t work and what we should change in our approach. Often, success simply doesn’t happen without a string of failures preceding it.

Utilizing this demotivator will pull up all the times they were labeled as a failure before:

               You’ll never get into college if you fail that class.

               You always fail at everything.

               You’ll never amount to anything. You’re a complete failure.

What to do instead: Take situational factors into account, and think of ways to help them succeed.

Don’t define people as failures because they’re not achieving the results you want.

To help coach your employees through failure, ask questions about what they’re struggling with. Find out what’s holding them back, both internally and externally. Evaluate how these barriers can be overcome.

Brainstorm what hasn’t worked previously and how their approach could be modified going forward.

A little positive perspective can help reframe the situation.

Trust is also a huge component of strong leadership. Your team needs to feel as though you have their back and will support them.

5. Rejection

               No one wants to work with you.

               Go work on that other team.

               You don’t have the know-how of new systems and technology to work on this.  

               You’re too old, too young to get this done.

               You can attend this meeting when you start doing a good job.

Rejection is a real demotivator. The person takes this as personally as it gets. Of the five tips for how to demotivate employees, it’s also the most damaging tactic to use.

Some of the painful moments throughout our lives involve rejection. For example, your employees may pull files from:

  • The teams they didn’t get picked for
  • The parties they weren’t invited to
  • The boys/girls who ignored them
  • The moment someone said, “I don’t love you”
  • The colleges they weren’t accepted to or the jobs they didn’t get – despite how perfect they felt they were for them

This is powerful stuff. Every time we experience rejection, those prior memories come flooding back to demoralize us further.

Remember earlier when we discussed how no feedback was the worst form of feedback? Now you know why. Rejection is the same thing as giving someone the silent treatment – brushing them off, telling them they aren’t worth your time or effort.

For a manager, rejection is an incredibly demeaning way of communicating: Well, I have nothing to say to you until you get your act together. I don’t have time for you. Go ask someone else.

What to do instead: Take responsibility for helping and motivating your team members.

You are a manager of human beings, not human doings.

Reject a task, process or goal after evaluating its worth, but always respect people.

Consider how you can motivate your employees without resorting to shame tactics or rejection. Look to increase your empathy for others.

Show your team members that you care about them. Convey that you’re invested in their success and are willing to put in the time and effort to develop their potential.

Look toward their strengths and what is meaningful to them. Utilize other members on the team to complement their strengths and create a culture of diversity as well as talents.

Summing it all up

If you want to find out how to demotivate employees – and therefore multiply fear, anxiety and lack of trust – then use the five tips we’ve listed here.

But is this what rallies people to a vision? Does this truly motivate people and push them to succeed on your behalf?

These tips have never been effective and hopefully never will be. Even when you must have hard conversations with employees to hold them accountable, you can still do it in a way that preserves their dignity and self-respect.

Any time before you speak to your team, pause and ask yourself these questions:

  1. How do I want to be remembered after this interaction?
  2. Would what I’m about say motivate me?
  3. Would what I’m about to say demotivate me? (If so, then don’t say it.)

Remember: The best leaders are associated with traits such as helpfulness, trustworthiness, openness and compassion.

To learn about how to better inspire people (instead of demotivating employees), and in turn increase their productivity and engagement, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.