When motivation turns toxic

What factors make motivation go wrong and what can an organisation do about it?

Any team or group offers benefits like shared identity, values, mutual understanding and social stability. These can be powerful incentives that motivate people toward specific goals.

But there are three major characteristics of an environment, team or workplace that can make motivation go wrong. These three factors encourage, allow, or promote motivation to be directed in toxic or destructive directions.

1. Conducive environment

Dictators, demagogues and toxic leaders thrive in environments that seem threatening, dangerous or uncertain. Unstable work environments, like economic and social difficulties, often allow leaders to seize more authority and power when people demand quick and decisive action – whether or not that action is really in the best interests of the group or organisation.

Feelings of threat, mistreatment, desperation or financial difficulties make people more likely to condone aggressive leadership, and more susceptible to populist messages in favour of rational solutions. Safety, security or familiarity is prioritised over longer term or more effective solutions.

Organisations that do not have systems for limiting power, or have unnecessarily complex administrative and governance structures, allow improper uses of power to go unchallenged.

2. Colluding followers

Destructive leaders cannot be successful without colluding followers or minions. While some followers may also be deliberately destructive and seek to benefit from a toxic leader, many colluding followers are supportive for less deliberate reasons. Often people follow toxic leaders because they feel the need for social order, fitting in with the group, obedience to authority, or imitating those with higher status.

One of the most common reasons followers collude with toxic leaders is caused by their motivation. Employees strive to meet extrinsic motivators like pay, job security or working conditions. Those worried about having sufficient resources, security or conditions are the most likely to be vulnerable to toxic leaders.

Ambitious motivation can be another major reason followers might collude with toxic leaders, which raises the question: ambition to do what? Those who feel underpaid, under-appreciated or micromanaged can be more susceptible to toxic leaders who promise solutions. Those who are ambitious for personal gain, irrespective of group or organisational consequences, are easier for destructive leaders to exploit.

3. Destructive leaders

There are five main characteristics of destructive leaders: charisma, personalised use of power, narcissism, negative life themes, and an ideology of hate.

First, destructive leaders have charisma and charm that appeals to their followers or a particular group. They are able to communicate a strong and clear vision of a desirable (often oversimplified) future. This is often coupled with narcissism, strong personal self-belief, and conviction of one’s own superiority. It comes with entitled attitudes and grandiose fantasies about themselves.

Destructive leaders use power and influence for their own purposes and personal gain irrespective of the effects on others. They often have a history of problems in their early life including traumatic childhood events, a difficult upbringing, or experiences of powerlessness that make them more likely to be motivated by destructive impulses later in life.

Finally, destructive leaders have an ideology of hate. They tend to see the world in terms of external enemies to be destroyed. They need to be seen to 'win' over a real or imagined enemy. Often scapegoats are identified as the major source of all problems, which are then used to distract from the real problems and the leader’s own deficiencies.

These five characteristics often make toxic leaders effective at gaining power, particularly when they see opportunities to benefit or enrich themselves, but these factors also tend to lead them to derailment in the longer term.

What to do about it

The four most important ways to prevent, mitigate or stop motivation from turning toxic are:

1. Be self-aware (and aware of others). Understand the types of stressors, challenging environments or destructive people who can turn your motivation or the motivation of others to destructive means. Think of self-awareness as an inoculation against derailment.

2. Have (and use) support networks. Derailment can intensify in isolation. Trusted friends, colleagues or family members can help spot and stop destructive behaviours before they get out of control.

3. Embed oversight in the workplace culture. Everyone from frontline workers to senior leaders should be accountable for their actions and performance. Just like managers provide oversight for their direct reports, the board is responsible for oversight of the senior leadership team.

4. Use strong measurement and evaluation tools. To spot potential problems measure and understand what motivates people in the company. Assess and track individual, team and overall motivation overtime to spot trends that could indicate something is going wrong.

Ian MacRae is the co-author of new book Motivation and Performance: A guide to motivating a diverse workforce