Consider the boss with a North Korean-style approach to gathering office intelligence.
She enlisted her staff to spy on one another, recalls Brenda Della Casa, managing editor of I Am Staggered, USA and author of "Cinderella Was a Liar."
"She'd then use the information—accurate or not—against the employee and as an excuse to go off on the employee and create a culture of fear," Della Casa says.
Sure, lots of bosses work hard to motivate workers. But what are the best practices for leaders seeking to "completely, utterly destroy an employee's work life," in the words of a recent Washington Post article?
In that article, researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer tell how they collected confidential electronic diaries from 238 professionals in seven companies over several months. They compared the best days with the worst and came up with a how-to for bosses seeking to turn eager hires into dispirited underperformers.
Among their suggestions were, "Never allow pride of accomplishment," and, "Miss no opportunity to block progress on employees' projects."
We called Amabile and sent out a query through Help a Reporter Out to hear tales of what not to do in the workplace. Do any of these undermining communication horror stories sound familiar—either on the giving or receiving end?
Impede their progress
You thought they all just wanted to goof off, but—go figure—they're actually happiest when they're productive.
"On the best days at work, the single most prominent factor by far was simply making progress on meaningful work," says Amabile, who with Kramer is co-author of "The Progress Principle," which described their study.
Undermine and second-guess them
A university media and public relations manager who asked to remain anonymous offers this helpful tip for nasty bosses: "Keep repeating in staff meetings 'I'm here to help all of you find your creative confidence!' and then withhold information, make decisions about their jobs without consulting them, and question every decision they make."
Ignore them when they're right
Max Holloway, head of online marketing for Miravue Skin Clinic, recalls spending a day with a director of a company he formerly worked for, proving that a marketing activity was working and making money.
"At the end of it he just said, 'Yeah, but I don't think it's working so we're cutting it anyway,' [despite] the proof right there," Holloway says.
He adds: "So, how to demoralize your work force: Don't listen to them. Ever. Especially when they're right."
Focus on superficial 'morale boosting'
Barry Maher, author and motivational speaker, recalls a Nixonian boss who "who had a genius for creating bad office perks," by piping in Muzak and leaving candy dishes everywhere when most employees were dieting.
She also tried to boost morale by having every individual create a motivational banner. One employee offered a slogan that management then hung by the main entrance: "Walk the elephant and pitch to the giraffe."
(Perhaps management was unaware that it's the punch line to a joke: "What do you do with an elephant with three balls?")
Offer destructive criticism
Bert Martinez, author and expert in sales and business, says, "Criticism plays a major part of any employee's bad day or destruction. With enough criticism, you can chase away positive people and attract equally negative people."
Done right, unfair criticism can turn a competent, productive employee with high esteem into self-doubting, non-performer.
There's a bonus to managing that way: "The destruction doesn't stop there," he says. "It will follow the employee home, too, where it will interfere with personal relationships and reduce their sex drive."
Ha! That teaches them for thinking they're good enough to work for you.
"One of the most destructive things to an employee is not offering clear-cut, consistent standards of successful performance," says V. McLeod, founder and chief facilitator of Conversations with V!
"When mediocrity or, worse, underperformance is tolerated or rewarded in the workplace, it demotivates and disempowers potential excellence from developing," she says.
Trip them up on deadline
Want a good laugh? Stick out your managerial foot just as an employee is rushing by trying to get something done.
Scott Thompson, an engineering draftsman and project leader with Laminators Inc., recalls a boss who would delay providing data that his associates needed to do the job.
"He would deliver necessary data just before your due date so that you had to rush to complete work on time," Thompson says. "If you didn't complete projects on time, you got written up."
Don't provide clear goals or autonomy
One consumer products company fared poorly in Amabile and Kramer's study. A manager complained that a vice president killed her handheld mixer project three times before it was finally approved. All the stops and starts demoralized staff.
"She talked about the frustration her team was having in not having clear goals and not having the autonomy to get it done," Amabile says.