This article seeks to inform about certain harmful management methods with the focus on avoiding burn-out and other negative side effect to staff member health. With the awareness of this method, its shape and outcome, hopefully as manager you will cease to leverage this form of indirect management, and as task assignee you will be able to identify the method applied on you or others and fix it.
About Motivated Self-Endangerment
This label defines a certain management method of indirectly requesting staff to work extraordinarily hard and / or long hours, bypassing a legal accountability of same. This subject was first brought to my attention by Markus Mattern from the LearnSuits blog under the German name “Interessierte Selbstgefährdung”. I could not find any reference material in English language, so I hope you would all agree with the translation of the method name.
The manager assigns tasks in a particular phrasing that suggests a certain danger when not fulfilled satisfactory. The manager will request for an activity to be carried out with a special mention that put an emphasis on expected delivery time and quality. He or she will not define it clearly in the assignment, but they transfer the entire accountability of the task to the assignee along with all pressure and possible reprisals. The following phrasings could indicate an attempt for motivated self-endangerment:
- Could you please do this? It would be better if that could be presented to the board before end of the week. [You finish this in time at all cost or you will be blamed on a high level!]
- Could you please take ownership of that? Please see to it that the report indicates our success. [You better do anything you can to turn these numbers green!]
- This is a team effort, all. Let’s review how well everybody did in the weekly meeting. [This is now a tournament competition. Low-performers will be humiliated in the group.]
Nowadays managers are required to follow certain rules by HR, worker council / union, and even law. They cannot request their staff to do overtime or sacrifice their well-being over an assignment. By leveraging this subtle indirect motivation, they have not requested overtime and are not subject to prosecution from within the organization or from a legal instance. When communicating the assignment, they only give a hint of the consequences when not fulfilled, which are absolutely open for interpretation.
From the manager angle however the byline is considered as additional contextual information and does not form an order when deconstructed. Yes, the manager gives the motivation that the task needs to be carried out very fast or very well or both, but he or she never said it. They never ordered overtime, they only told them to see to it being done. They don’t care how and they did not offend any rules or regulations in leadership of staff.
Outcome of the method
From management point of view it is very likely that the tasks assigned in this fashion are carried out on time and in expected quality. The cost for that is a corrosive effect to the relationship and culture in your workplace. Beyond that there is a strong negative impact on the health of affected staff members. Distress invoked by this method can cause recurring pain, permanent stress effects and long term physical and psychological issues.
Fix for Managers
If you recognize this way of assigning tasks from your own management style and you were not aware of this having negative side effects, kindly assess how you communicate with your team. Dropping hints on reprisals or shifting accountability to team members is not a sustainable practice and will have a negative impact on rapport and culture.
Fix for Staff
If you are affected by motivated self-endangerment as described above, you should first check your own perception of the assignment and how it is assigned. Sometimes stressful moods lead to a more urgent understanding of deliverables that it is the case. If you find everything is objectively understood on your end, but the hinted threat of failure still haunts you at night and makes you give up parts of your life and health in order to deliver, you need to act. You should first try to talk about this with your line manager and check why this is done the way it is. There is a chance that the behavior is accidental and not intended.
Talk about how you perceive certain assignments, share insight into your everyday activity and your schedule to make it transparent. If you encounter conflicts of priority, ask for help. You can let your manager know, that there won’t be enough time to finish both tasks in desired quality in time. Ask which activity is more relevant to be carried out and ask if the other activity could be maybe done by someone else. This isn’t lazy. It’s transparent, fair and professional. If you tried to improve the mode of management and have no luck doing so together with your manager, you should try contacting the HR department next and ask for assistance. They are skilled with the subject matter and can help to improve the situation and will always support you.
Fix for HR
There is the risk of motivated self-endangerment on every level in an organization. You should check if such practices are common and where they are applied. You should assess and discuss the negative aspects of this questionable method of productivity enhancement with the leaders in the organization and work on actionable steps to improve the situation.
From a psychological point of view I found the method of motivated self-endangerment very interesting. I don’t think it should be practiced but I think we all should be aware of it and try to avoid it. Even if we find people who practice this more or less frequently, it might be that they don’t intend it. There is the possibility of that being just the way they talk. Some people don’t like directive and ordering others around and wrap their assignment a little bit up. Find out about it and if it seems to be root cause for any negative effects with you or other coworkers of yours, just speak up and find out what’s what.
Source: Andreas Krause, Cosima Dorsemagen, Klaus Peters