My Give a Damn’s Busted

Is it possible that your employees are singing “My Give a Damn is Busted”? A common complaint of many business owners is that their employees lack motivation. However, the real problem is that employees are under-engaged, and there is plenty of research to support this.

The most common reason for under-engagement is the very owners who are complaining. These leaders have accomplished much in their careers and have confused accomplishment with competence. Truth be told, the leader is often the direct cause of many daily workplace problems.

The best way to illustrate my point is to share with you a story about the worst case I have encountered. One thing that made this case particularly challenging was that the business had done well in spite of leadership shortcomings. This leader measured performance based on what had been accomplished rather than what should have been accomplished. Worse, his only measurement system was his own financial net worth, which did not take into account the number of “dead bodies” he left along the way. As in most situations, the CEO caused a majority of the damage.

According to “Top Grading” by Bradford D. Smart, the cost of having a poorly performing CEO is 24 times the CEO’s base salary. Interestingly, I had estimated that my case company was operating at one-quarter of the profit it should have made. This shortfall was equivalent to 24 times the CEO’s base compensation.

Mr. Smith, CEO of XYZ Company, embodied many of the reasons why employers find their employees working far below their potential. This CEO had two partners, and the business had existed for almost 20 years. Mr. Smith came to our firm because he was “having trouble with one of his partners.” In other words, he wanted me to fix his partner. In addition, he had read a book about customer service and wanted to build “extreme” customer service into his business.

As is customary, I met with all the partners and some key employees. Based on their input, we concluded that the CEO was the real issue. To put it bluntly, if Mr. Smith died in his office, almost every employee, particularly his partners, would be suspects in his death. While I do not believe this to be Mr. Smith’s true self, his actions were perceived by others to demonstrate a very poor value system.

The following are some examples of Mr. Smith behaviors:

  • Competed with his employees – Whenever someone in the organization appeared to have a lot of influence/power with others or was more knowledgeable in certain subjects, Mr. Smith would go out of his way to denigrate them or directly reduce their power.
  • Lacked follow-through – Chastised individuals for their lack of follow-through when he was typically the least reliable when it came to delivering on a commitment.
  • Stifled innovation – Encouraged employees to “think outside the norm,” but penalized and publicly humiliated anyone who had an idea he did not agree with.
  • Handled mistakes poorly – Became overly emotional when people made mistakes. Worse, it was impossible to become a star employee as one mistake was all it took to have you marked as a problem employee. Two years in a row, an employee recognized for exceptional performance in one year was let go or driven out of the business the following year.
  • Lacked commitment to goals­ – The CEO consistently lacked commitment to goals and regularly changed them. When new initiatives were launched, it was not unusual for employees to not take them seriously. They expected things to go back to the old method within 30 to 60 days.
  • Rewarded the wrong behaviors – Rewarded people on how well they pleased him rather than on actual work performance.
  • Talked behind people’s backs – Regularly talked poorly about people behind their backs in order to try to boost his own image.
  • Divulged confidential information – When people shared personal/confidential information, they could rest assured he would not keep it to himself. He would also demand and pressure employees to do the same.
  • Lacked integrity – Insisted that his employees read books about actions and behaviors he did not practice.

If someone is guilty of one or more of the above actions on a consistent basis you may rest assured they are reducing organizational performance. In the end, it comes down to the values you project to others by your actions, not your words. Unfortunately, many leaders do not consistently display the values that drive top performance and in most cases are the cause of their employees singing “My Give a Damn is Busted.”

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