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Funny, But No Joke

Despair.com was one of the great discoveries of 2004. I bought a set of Demotivator™ note cards and had a little frame made so that I could rotate the display - notwithstanding which I have never been motivated to replace "Motivation." (Tag line: "If a pretty poster and a cute saying are all it takes to motivate you, you probably have a very easy job. The kind robots will be doing soon.") This year, just in time for Christmas, I got a catalogue in the mail, just to remind me that Despair.com exists, I suppose. The catalogue was a lot of fun, and I jumped at the opportunity, promised last year, to buy The Art of Demotivation: A Visionary Guide for Transforming Your Company's Least Valuable Asset - Your Employees, by E L Kersten, PhD and head of Despair.com. The fact that The Art of Demotivation is bloodcurdlingly funny should distract no one from its profound usefulness as a hermeneutic of today's business world.

No, I still don't know what "hermeneutic" means. But it sounds good.

Dr Kersten will doubtless some day share with us the history of his enterprise, but I suspect that it began something like this: instead of throwing up at the sight of yet another vapid inspirational poster hanging on some toady accountant's wall - say, this one, "Teamwork," showing a circle of parachutists holding hands - Dr Kersten retired to a convenient drawing board, thereupon creating "Idiocy," and adding the great tag line, "Never Underestimate the Power of Stupid People in Large Groups." A good laugh was had by all.

As this critique of the motivational industry progressed, however - and it does have it coming, after all - Dr Kersten had an even brighter idea. Instead of aiming his argument at sophisticates like you and me who see right through the psychobabble of motivational coaching, Dr Kersten pitched it to a constituency that suffers a great deal more than you or I do at the hands of motivational coaches, to wit, CEOs. CEOs are admonished from every public pulpit to treat their employees as their most valuable asset! They don't believe this for a second; they know it can't be true. But they have to go through the motions. They're obliged to bring in the consultants, who only make things worse. Dr Kersten wrote his book, therefore, with the crusading purpose of convincing CEOs that they can forget about motivators! Not just that, but that they ought to de-motivate their employees, so as to get more work out of them, and less fuss, too.

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.

Can't argue with that. But watch the insidious appeal unwind:

The primary objective of the motivational industry is to stoke the fires of your employee's 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 resolve 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.

The breath of contemptuous Mr Moneybags for the Little People is actually quite chilling, I think. Dr Kersten attributes the confusion of today's business environment to the Myth of the Noble Employee. As anyone who has ever hired a cleaning lady knows, employees are never noble. They never do their jobs the way you want them to, even when you take the time to point this out to them. Employees, in fact and in short, are per se unsatisfactory. That being the case, there is no need to mollycoddle them; they'll just take advantage of you. What you want is Demotivated™ employees, and Table I shows you how effective Demotivation™ can be.

Demotivational Characteristics Demotivational Benefit
Feeling of powerlessness Employee is satisfied with less
Sense of victimization by fate Feels desperate loyalty to company
Low self-esteem Loses need for employee recognition
Acute defensiveness Does extra work as a means of ingratiation
Acute self-doubt Works hard as a means of salvaging identity
Lack of emotional resilience Works hard to avoid humiliation
Intense risk-aversion Is satisfied being an extension of executive ambition
Chronic pessimism Has better judgment; less money
Pervasive surliness Experiences accelerated acquiescence

These characteristics and benefits are then spelled out, one by one, with horrific clarity. The section closes with the following reassurance:

It should be clear that embarking upon a program of Radical Demotivation™ does not require filling your company with unskilled slackers who require more oversight than they are worth. Instead, it is an unobtrusive process of persistently changing the way your employees see themselves, their role in the company, and their sense of entitlement. Moreover, this process leaves your employees' skills intact and may even enhance them in some cases. It should also be clear that the "negative" emotions that most employees will experience in the process are not just natural, they are also instrumental in reinforcing the veracity of the path you are leading your employees down. In that regard, they can be considered "positive" emotions. But the key benefit - above any organizational optimization and heightened self-knowledge of your employees - is financial. Radical Demotivation increases profitability by raising productivity and lowering costs. In so doing, it improves shareholder value and the incentive value of executive profit-sharing-plans. As an executive who has been where you are, I can confidently say "there is hope." You can not only have it all, you can spend a lot less to get it. Progress begins when you boldly start a covert program of Radical Demotivation™.

Ah, covert. The Art of Demotivation™ is written in such deadpan prose that if it were not for little hints such as this, we might actually begin to take Dr Kersten at his word. For the book really is a catalogue raisonné of the abuses of power with which a manager can keep his workers in line. That's what keeps it from being a one-joke product. If you are an employee, you will find this a very helpful book - notwithstanding the stern warning on page vii:

This book was written for executives. If you are not an executive, do not intend to become an executive, or have no hope of becoming an executive, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK. Early feedback from focus groups comprised of typical business book readers have repeatedly evidenced that non-executives find its contents confusing, controversial, and on occasion, offensive.

The Warning is followed by "A Special Note About This Volume":

Given the controversial nature of this book and its aforementioned potential to confuse and offend the non-managerial class, it is imperative that the reader exercise extreme caution when reading this book in the workplace. To that end, this edition has been equipped with a secondary dust jacket, a cover for a fictional book called Ethics, Integrity, and Sacrifice in the Workplace.

I took this to be a joke, but I fingered the dust jacket and it felt a little thick. Sure enough, there's a second cover inside the first! As an employee, you can use this cover to fool your manager!

The Art of Demotivation comes in three editions. I bought the cheapest, the Manager Edition. The Executive Edition comes with a more impressive binding - it's a "a costlier edition of greater style and declarative power" - and it retails for $39.95. What I hope somebody got for Christmas is the Chairman Edition, which runs for $1,195.00. In addition to a lot of bookish folderol, it comes in its very own humidor, complete with hygrometer. C'mon, you're worth it!


As you might expect

adjective: interpretive or explanatory

The Art of Demotivation a must gift, perhaps anonymously, to everyones HR Director. Thank you, I'll be ordering mine today.

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