How to Motivate Employees: Leadership vs. Impedership

Ever wonder how to motivate employees so they are more engaged with their work, and better at it? Of course - what manager or leader hasn't? Unfortunately, many attempts to get the best out of our employees backfire. Instead of showing leadership, we exemplify the opposite: impedership

Coined by Dale Dauten in 2007, "impedership" is a term meant to contrast with true leadership. At its core, it is the practice of demotivating employees, often by showing a lack of trust in them and what they do. A funny example of a manager showing impedership is Lumbergh, the irritating division vice president from the 1999 move Office Space. Think about all the things that made Lumbergh so annoying to anyone who has ever held an office job:

  • Micromanaging what each employee does
  • Obsessing over meaningless reports and other busy work
  • Giving overly specific instructions
  • Greeting others in unenthusiastic and disingenuous ways
  • Asking for things in indirect ways (though he is clearly coercing his employees)
  • Not seeming to care one bit about his employees

In short, not at all an example of how to motivate employees! In fact, demonstrating impedership is the worst thing a manager can do.


Lumbergh is Just One Example of Impedership

While Lumbergh from Office Space makes for a funny example, it's important to remember that not all instances of impedership look the same. For example, all of these might also be examples of impedership. 

  • Micromanaging the work process
  • Failing to share goals and vision
  • Failing to encourage others
  • Being over-demanding, and then surprised when they fail
  • Obsessively checking work personally for errors and omissions
  • Demanding that employees do menial or personal tasks (for example, picking up your dry cleaning)
  • Hovering
  • Reprimanding employees in front of others
  • Saying de-motivational things

Actions like these aren't about having high expectations - in fact, quite the opposite. What unites all of these behaviors is the underlying attitude: That of undervaluing and underestimating the employees that the leader is supposedly in charge of overseeing, and their work. 


Impedership Has Negative Effects on Everyone

The trouble with constant impedership is that it does more than just demoralize the employee (or employees) on the receiving end. It tends to put fear and loathing into other employees as well, creating an overall negative culture. Just think of your own personal Office Space-like scenario! We can all agree that would not be good for productivity.

For example, employees who are always criticized for their work and never praised, and who are never, ever trusted to do a good job, will be unmotivated to do anything extra. They will never be willing to go "above and beyond," either always checking in with leadership for every little thing they do, or else just keeping their heads down and not putting in the extra effort. They will never recognize problems or spot opportunities. And they will certainly never brainstorm or innovate. 

If employees on one team or in one division feel this way, they will constantly hold up progress on other team, or in other divisions, too. 


Leadership vs. Impedership

I've gone into a lot of detail about what impedership looks like because, if we're being honest, no one wants to admit that they are an "impeder."

We all tend to think of ourselves as being above average (even when it comes to leadership). And when faced with something negative, our first impulse is to blame others, or the situation, rather than take a deep look within ourselves. (There's a lot of physical research showing that both these tendencies exist - it's human nature!)

It's easier to understand how much we fall short, and how much work we have to do ourselves, when we look at famous people who exhibit true leadership. 

True leadership knows how to motivate employees. It starts by mapping out where you need to "win" and setting those goals as a team (not setting goals yourself and handing them down). It then unleashes the team's talents to meet those goals, motivating along the way and removing roadblocks and obstacles where possible. 

Or, as world-famous singer Bono put it in an interview, "Real leadership is when everyone else feels in charge."

Martin Luther King, Jr. is a good example of this kind of positive leadership. He had a talent for sharing his vision in powerful ways and making everyone else feel like they were an important part of his movement. He tackled obstacles head-on, and taught others how to do so as well. And despite his near-rock-star status, those close to him considered him both a mentor and a friend. 

In the business world, Warren Buffett is a good example of this style of leadership. His is a "hands-off" style that gives managers the freedom to do what's necessary, while still holding them to a firm set of core values. Buffett also provides incentives for managers, treating them like co-owners, so that they work together to solve problems and share successes. 

You can probably think of a few others that fit this mold too. FDR, Nelson Mandela, and Oprah Winfrey all come to mind for me! 


5 Tips for Becoming a Leader (Not an Impeder)

Now take a step back for a moment. Whether or not you feel you are a good leader, let's ask: What should you be doing if you were showing signs of impedership? How can you avoid falling into the trap of impedership in the future? How can you cultivate a healthy leadership style?

  1. Don't talk "at" employees; aim to have open conversations. Most of your communication as a leader should involve questions, kudos, insights, and advice, not commands and reprimands. 
  2. Don't talk "down" at employees either; aim to coach them. You can check out our courses on coaching skills to help do this. You should also be open to coaching and feedback yourself
  3. Watch your tone and body language. Try to be aware of things that might inadvertently belittle your employees: Rolling your eyes when they say something or bring a problem to your attention, for example, or barking "What do you want?" On the other hand, open body language and a respectful tone do wonders. Check out our blog on nonverbal communication tips for a little more on body language. 
  4. Show that you care by giving them work/life balance. Don't overload them with piles of work (especially if it's busy work). Find a balance, and help them to be healthier and happier. This not only will make them more productive but will go a long way to treating them like valuable team members - and human beings. 
  5. Take time to hone your own leadership skills. Nobody's perfect. That includes leaders. But true leaders recognize that fact and constantly seek ways to improve. Some of the courses we offer can even help with this:  
    • The Mistakes Leaders Make series (which features a course specifically on impedership!)
    • The Becoming a Great Leader series
    • Mentoring

If you just want a sample of some of these courses, take a look at our Leadership video category page to preview some of that content. 

If you want more, you can always sign up for a free trial of Thinkzoom to see all of our leadership content, not to mention the rest of our content library. 

Good luck! Here's to avoiding impedership in the future! 

 

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