May 01, 1995

Practically any firm that makes money in the A/E/P or environmental business does so by getting a superhuman effort out of its staff. You just can’t do it with everyone working only 40 hours a week. It follows, then, that anything the company does to “demotivate” its work force detracts from this superhuman effort, and makes it harder for the firm to be profitable. My experience leads me to believe that design and environmental professionals are especially susceptible to becoming demotivated by their work environments. And since top management controls the work environment, the responsibility for dealing with the problem falls square upon their backs. Let’s look at some typical turn-offs we see or hear about almost daily: Public “down-dressings.” Any course in basic supervisory skills is bound to include the advice that you should never openly criticize an employee in front of his or her peers. Yet, many managers in our industry haven’t gotten this message. And it’s not just the person getting the public butt-chewing who is at risk of being demotivated— everyone who witnesses the event could be affected by it. They, too, will likely be distressed about it, especially if they believe it was unjustified. Blanket pay freezes or across-the-board pay reductions. There’s not much more you can do to turn off your best people than tell them that, no matter what they do, their pay is frozen. It makes absolutely no sense, yet many firms will enact this kind of policy when times get tough. Ditto for across-the-board pay reductions. In every firm, there are always some people whose pay needs to come down, some whose pay needs to go up, and some who should be right where they are. Not including someone in a meeting. It is always demotivating to superior employees to be excluded from a meeting they think should include them. Common instances of this include: not asking the human resources director to participate in the strategic planning process; not including the project manager at an important client meeting; or not allowing a marketing coordinator to attend a proposal planning session. Sometimes this feeling of exclusion may not seem particularly reasonable to you. It could be that the person who is demotivated doesn’t, in fact, need to be at the meeting. As a manager, however, you have to do your best to anticipate these situations and head them off by having a private conversation with the affected party before delivering the news that they aren’t invited to the meeting. Not consulting people about matters that affect them. I am referring to the way some firms change word processing software without consulting the secretaries or administrative assistants who are the primary users. Or the way some companies decide to move people to another department or unit of the firm without asking them how they would feel about it. You may not always feel like you have the time for this activity, yet not doing so could turn off a high producer who otherwise would be giving you 110%. Not giving out complete information. Military types refer to the practice of providing only sketchy or partial information as “need-to-know” communication. But our experience is that many design and environmental professionals— as smart a group as you’ll find working in any line of work— find this treatment insulting to their intelligence. The practice of withholding a project’s fee information from employees— or even worse, from project managers— is one of the most glaring examples of not giving out complete information. Motivated employees will often be demotivated by this kind of treatment. Making an employee get approval for everything he or she does. Multi-owner firms that operate as partnerships are really bad about this. Too often, each and every owner feels that he has the right to put his own “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” on everything. We have seen cases where owners expect to wordsmith all outgoing correspondence, even when it is produced in an outlying office. We have also seen situations where a press release to announce new staff has been held up for six months so everyone could read and re-read the announcement. Or how about the firm that doesn’t allow its branch office managers— in some cases people earning more than $100,000 per year— to spend $200 to send one of their people to a seminar? Any time such small decisions are overly scrutinized, it is bound to result in someone getting demotivated. Perceived bureaucracy and/or dumb policies. Professionals working in A/E/P and environmental firms absolutely hate what they perceive to be unnecessary rules or idiotic policies. We have seen cases where firms required that certain types of ink be used on employee expense reports— if the “special” ink wasn’t used, the report wasn’t processed. We have seen companies that require employees to buy their own coffee, one cup at a time. We have seen companies that charge users $0.17 a piece for project description sheets used in proposals. We have seen companies that would not give you a new pencil unless you turned in your old stub. We have seen companies that require managers to fill out a 20-page employee appraisal form on each person who works for them four times a year. And we have seen companies that required users of a copy machine to punch in a 19-digit project code number to make a single copy— a copy that will be charged to overhead! This kind of stuff always backfires and provides fuel to the complainers who love to talk about why the firm is such a lousy place to work. Reductions in benefits. Not giving something is never as bad as giving it and then taking it away. Nowhere is that statement more true than in the employee benefits area. As far as I’m concerned, a firm can adopt many different strategies with regard to its benefits. A firm’s benefits can be better than its competitors, about the same, or less, depending on what the firm is doing with the rest of its compensation dollars. We started seeing a trend toward reduced benefits, especially in large and mid-sized firms, in the aftermath of the 1980s. And we’re still seeing it now as we head into the mid-1990s, especially in environmental consulting firms who are restructuring to address the maturation of their service markets. But no matter what, the bottom line remains the same— once you give, it’s darned difficult to take it away without demotivating your troops in the process. It’s hard enough to find good people these days— you better not risk turning off the ones you have. Think about what your firm does that could turn off the best and the brightest, and amend your ways. It’s never too late to change! Originally published5/01/1995

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.