Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Art of Demotivation

Years ago now, my friend Judi loaned me a book by E. L. Kersten, cofounder of Despair Inc., which produces those Demotivators posters ("Burnout: If attitude is contagious, mine could kill you"). The jacket of the book reads "Ethics, Integrity and Sacrifice in the Workplace," but that's just a cover, literally: under the jacket is the real book, The Art of Demotivation: A Visionary Guide for Transforming Your Company's Least Valuable Asset--Your Employees. Har har snort.

Anyway, Judi finally asked me if I could give it back to her, so I thought, before I do, that I'd finally read it. It does what all good satire does: takes an absurd system and treats it seriously, turning it on its head in an equally absurd way. Kersten's book--at least in the eleven pages I've read so far--indicts the twentieth-century infatuation with self-actualization as the reason for the mediocrity of so many companies. The solution he proposes, with tongue at least partially in cheek, is "demotivation," or the systematic humiliation and alienation of employees so that they'll quit looking for their jobs to fulfill them and instead concentrate on fulfilling their responsibilities at their jobs. It's horrific, it's distressing, it's brilliant.

Exhibit A is this long excerpt on the "motivational industry," or consultants who are hired by corporate executives for weekend employee pick-me-ups. It makes a far less sympathetic but otherwise similar diagnosis of the culture we find ourselves in to the one I made in Deliver Us from Me-Ville. Enjoy it, understanding that he's being provocative on purpose:

Much of what passes for motivation in the motivational industry is little more than egoistic, short-term enthusiasm, or warm feelings generated by the creative packaging of the "principles" of the human potential movement, which itself is little more than a curious amalgam of common sense, humanistic religion, sophistry, and psychological snake-oil. The primary objective of the motivational industry is to stoke the fires of your employees' narcissism so that they fall in love with themselves all over again, just like they did when they saw their own beauty in the distorted reflection of their mother's adoring gaze, prior to their exposure to any of the objective, real-world criteria that would define them otherwise. The insights peddled to your employees revolve around the ideas that they are uniquely equipped to do something special, that they have a proprietary configuration of underappreciated skills that they have yet to discover (or show any evidence of), that their weaknesses are really strengths, and that they are winners who have simply not had the chance to win. They are regaled with stories about people like Thomas Edison who regarded failed experiments as stepping-stones on the path to scientific discovery, and they end up concluding that their own personal histories of failure and non-achievement are signs that they are bound for greatness. In this systematic distortion of reality, they learn to label their stubbornness as conviction; their bad attitudes as a passion for justice; their willful subversion of the company's goals as a unique, underappreciated perspective on how the company should proceed; and their general surliness as a natural response to a global lack of appreciation for their supremely valuable uniqueness.


Kersten attributes the perpetuation of the motivational industry to the way it calculates its success rate: not consequent improvement in employee productivity, but comment cards filled out by the employees in attendance. In actuality, "the life-changing insights sold by the motivational industry are the source of their problems rather than the solution to them. The consultants . . . are like ice cream vendors at a fat farm, pimps at a treatment facility for sex addicts, or drug pushers at a methadone clinic. They pander to your employees' cravings, and in so doing they exacerbate the problems they are paid to solve."

You'll get your book back soon, Judi. I promise.

1 comment:

Rick said...

Nice. Made me feel good about myself again. :)