WTF #2: Motivating the Unmotivable

WTF #2: Motivating the Unmotivable

What The Flux is a semi-regular weekend feature on that follows the follies and jollies of an engineer in industry, yours truly.


Last week, I mentioned that Santa Claus came to town to shut down our satellite office. What I didn’t tell you was that Santa Claus had a private meeting with me the night before the official announcement. He wanted me to stay with FluxCorp and suggested that I accept an offer to relocate and transfer to another part of the company. He also made it clear that there was no Plan B should I reject the offer. Next morning, I went to work and watched my colleagues being their usual cheery selves, knowing that in another hour or two, those cheery smiles will be turned upside down once Santa Claus arrived at the office.

Santa was pretty blunt in his delivery — straight forward, no BS, and emotionally detached. It wasn’t terribly empathetic, but at least he didn’t fake empathy, which would have been worse. The layoffs were certain. The physical office was to be shut down in 2 months, but what he wanted everyone to do was to work out of their homes for a while longer so the product we’re working on, affecting several hundred million dollars in revenue, can be properly delivered to the customers. Furthermore, he told me in private he wanted me, as one of the leaders of the team, to make sure that during this time of transition, everyone continued to focus on the work at hand.

Ha! Santa’s not stupid. He’s just saying what he needed to say as a company man. But I’m sure even he would agree, off the record, that trying to motivate the undead — working but laid off — is nigh impossible.


I have been working as a contractor for the past two years. I cannot understand why a job coming to an end is demotivating. Cherish wrote about this same issue a few weeks ago, and I had the same confusion. Maybe it’s just a question of taste. I liked school because I knew the class would go on for a few months, be successful, mediocre, or a failure; and then it would END. I worked captive jobs for years, and I hated the feeling that I might be doing basically the same thing two years in the future. Two month’s is like half a school term. At the end everyone will go onto new projects. Many people go on their separate ways but will meet up again six months later on some other project.

The only case I understand the negative reaction is if the job is a really sweet deal. I’ve heard of people with union jobs at risk who fear they’ll only bring in half the money if the job goes away. I totally get that. But engineering projects come and go.

I think as a contractor you have a mindset prepared for new work. I know if I lost my job tomorrow I would be shocked because of the assumption that I’d be coming in the following day and that there would be some semblance of stability (if not for me, then for my family). I’d be interested in seeing a post on this topic if you would be willing to guest post here.

You’re thinking about work as a different beast than what I’m living.

I work on two to four different projects at any given time. The projects I work on are based on what funding we have. I also get to set the direction for several of my projects, and I get to do some original research.

I also like my coworkers. I had a couple of miserable years in grad school, and going to work with (most) of them really did a lot to make me feel like I could be a productive and happy person again.

Basically, I get to do a lot of stuff like a contractor does (which means I don’t get bored), but I like having more stability…and until recently, that was the reality. But now, the stability issue is getting scary. And frankly, I don’t want the job I love to go away. I don’t really want to be working on stuff where someone tells me what to do rather than me getting to figure out what to do and how to do it.

@Charles — I’m rather surprised by your inability to understand why facing a pending layoff is demotivating. I thought this would fall under that famous line often read in math textbooks, “The proof is obvious and is left up to the reader.” Anyhow, I will take you at your word that you do not understand and will approach a response from that angle. And since this is an engineering blog, let’s try to take a more scientific approach to this very human issue. But first, let me start with one obvious reason why people may be less motivated after hearing of their impending employment doom:

Because they’re busy looking for jobs. Yes, while they’re at work. Because what’s the company going to do? Fire them?

Beyond that, let’s examine the top ten motivational factors of employees identified in a 1998 study published in the Journal of Extension and see how things look before and after the layoff announcement.

(a) interesting work
Before: Finalizing the product for customers is grunt work, but supporting customers to ramp to production to millions of parts per week is both interesting and fulfilling.
After: Finalizing the product for customers is grunt work. Won’t be around to support customers afterwards.

(b) good wages
Before: Good wages.
After: Soon, there will be no wages.

(c) full appreciation of work done
Before: Some appreciation of work done.
After: Really, do I need to type anything here?

(d) job security
Before: It’s there.
After: It’s not there.

(e) good working conditions
Before: Good working conditions.
After: Office dismantled; working from home; separated from team; soon, there’s no work so no need to talk about conditions.

(f) promotions and growth in the organization
Before: Probable, if one performs well.
After: Use your imagination.

(g) feeling of being in on things
Before: Yes, we were in on things.
After: Company now trying to work around the team.

(h) personal loyalty to employees
Before: It’s there.
After: If being laid off is considered loyalty, then yes, there’s plenty of it.

(i) tactful discipline
Before: Never needed to be disciplined.
After: Feels like getting disciplined for making the company loads of money.

(j) sympathetic help with personal problems.
Before: Limited.
After: None.

I hope this has been helpful in increasing your understanding of why some people feel rather demotivated after getting let go.

Well put sir…… are in a totally different mindset to permanent workers.

Where they only have loyalty to those who pay them the best daily rates, permies can only be loyal to their current employer……the shock of being laid off has to sink in first and then there is the arduous task of looking for another job assuming there are permanent roles available in the current climate.

How on earth can one not be affected knowing they are being laid off out of the blue and then deal with the added stress of job hunting?

Or they can remove that shock factor by becoming a freelance engineer….by which they can look for roles as and when they choose to coincide with the end of roles.

Fluxor, your boss has put you into a bad situation, as you well know. Your team’s main motivation is to find new jobs — not loyally toil for a company that is laying them off. You can try to appeal to their professionalism (leave after completing a successful project despite adverse conditions, build positive reputation). But I would concentrate on coming up to speed on everything everybody else is doing, and documentation, as much as possible since you may lose key performers at any moment. I’d also make sure I had good contact information and good will with all of them since you may work with them or need them again in the future. I’d also re-evaluate the company and my position in it because although (apparently) you still have a future there, how strong is this company really? Will the relocation be practical for you? You need to decide if this experience is a preview of things to come.

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