Motivation in the Workplace: Healthy vs. Harmful

What motivates you to clock into work each day? For some of us, it’s praise and recognition. For others, it’s bigger opportunities. For many, it’s making a positive impact on an industry or issue. And for some, it’s strictly money. Whatever our biggest motivating factors might be, they drive us to work hard each day and often propel us to go above and beyond.

It’s healthy to have some level of motivation fueling us. I don’t know how many people would work as hard as they do if there was absolutely nothing motivating them, be it tangible or intangible. But when does motivation do more harm than good, especially in Silicon Valley’s competitive work environment, where the idea of putting in more than 40 hours a week seems like a given. What about when people start sacrificing their other wants, relationships, or even basic healthy habits? Motivation is a core theme in executive coaching for men, especially determining if motivation is healthy or harmful.

Let’s start with the ideal workplace scenario. Your manager takes time to understand what your goals are. He or she helps you come up with a plan and obtainable steps to reach those goals. Along the way, your manager encourages you with both positive feedback and constructive criticism so you have a transparent understanding of how you are progressing and what else you might need to do. If you seek promotion, more responsibility, more money, or something else motivates you, your manager challenges you with opportunities that fuel your growth towards those objectives. And ultimately, you feel your manager genuinely wants you to succeed.


Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, workplace dynamics, particularly around motivation, end up being much more complex. Not all managers understand what encourages their employees, and not all employees know how to articulate what motivates them. Sometimes, it’s a simple misunderstanding, or either party does not take the time to communicate wants and expectations. Yet sometimes, employers take advantage of their workforce under the guise of motivation.

Let me preface that everyone is fueled by different motivational styles, and that’s understandable. But in the workplace, there are some ground rules. No manager or colleague should ever insult or threaten you. That seems obvious. But often, harmful motivational tactics are much more inconspicuous. Let’s look at some examples of toxic motivation.

Ruling by Fear. Think of a workout class. There are some instructors who pump up students with encouraging words, describing rewards like a guilt-free holiday meal or a beach body for an upcoming vacation. They may also praise people who are doing well by calling out their name with a “good job!” Then, there’s the former drill sergeant. He screams, he insults you, he instills fear with threats: “don’t let me catch you!” I don’t know what happens if he does, but you bet I’m going to keep running no matter how much it hurts.

At the end of the workout class, you may feel sore (be it your muscles or your ego) but the pain fades relatively quickly after the class, and you go about your day. However, when similar tactics are used in a work environment that makes up more than 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, it’s understandable that you may start to feel beat, inadequate, pushed-to-the-limit, or even depressed.

Some examples of toxic comments disguised to keep you working hard:

“Dave stays late every night. You could get a raise, too, if you did that...” “You should be grateful you have a job...” “You’re lucky, this is the best job you’re ever going to have.”

It’s OK to be grateful for employment, but it’s important to remember, it’s just that - employment. Your employment is a business transaction. You provide services as an employee, and your company provides you with the pay and benefits you contractually agreed to when you were hired. You are allowed to have boundaries, and you’re allowed to assert those boundaries without retaliation from your boss.

Let’s look at another example of toxic motivation.

Carrot-dangling. Perhaps your boss continuously promises you rewards that just never seem to pan out, or they seem too good to be true. I call this “carrot dangling,” when leadership foreshadows rewards to push employees without any true intention of actually implementing those rewards.

Does your boss tell you “just another month of late nights and extra early hours,” but repeatedly month after month, without hours ever easing? Does he or she give you steps to achieve a promotion, but the more steps you achieve, more and more get added to the list?

Ultimately, carrot-dangling is preaching empty promises designed to keep you burning the midnight oil without any intention of giving you those rewards.   

Hazing. I don’t mean pouring alcohol down your throat or making you sing silly songs in public. Of course when starting any job, you should expect to pay your dues, prove your worth, and build trust amongst your team. And, all jobs will involve aspects you find tedious or you generally dislike. But have you ever felt like you were given tasks just to push you or test your limits in an unnecessary and unhealthy way? This is where your gut comes in handy. If the challenges feel mean-spirited or the tasks feel demeaning, consider speaking to Human Resources or a therapist.

Each workplace is different, and it can be difficult to decipher where to draw the line between helpful and harmful motivation. If you would like to discuss your personal experience, please contact me for a free phone consultation.