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I'm wondering if consciously making employees doubt their abilities or value, is a technique that some managers actively practise.

I can imagine that this might be a good technique in certain contexts. Clearly for a high achieving company like Google, the company simply wants the best talent possible, and it's best to keep the employees happy and motivated.

However, for a company that:

  • Is on a tight budget.

  • Requires smart people, but the work is mundane.

  • Requires smart people, but employees value is tied up in their domain-specific knowledge, rather than transferable skills.

It might make sense for management to angle to make employees doubt their abilities or value as to:

  • Be able to pay them less.

  • Make them feel less confident to leave, and find a different job.

  • Make them feel satisfied with doing mundane work.

Management can do this by:

  • Criticising performance.

  • Not providing positive feedback.

  • Highlighting all flaws.

Is there any evidence that management actively discuss and practise this technique?

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    I have to ask, did this come from reading a lot of Dilbert? – panoptical Apr 11 '14 at 1:40
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    This is not recognized as a "management technique", since it would be counterproductive at best. It may be something that some particular idiots do. – keshlam Apr 11 '14 at 1:46
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    not a technique but a symptom of poor leadership – the_reluctant_tester Apr 11 '14 at 2:05
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    Playing mind games may or may not work in the (very) short term, but the employees eventually wise up. This is not the sort of stuff that creates good will or employee loyalty or consideration for the employer. You'd have to be an idiot to try this but I am cynical enough to believe that the idiots, through their sheer numbers, will inherit the Earth. Not the meek, the idiots. – Vietnhi Phuvan Apr 11 '14 at 2:42
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    @keshlam Idiots and unethical directors too. – aroth Apr 11 '14 at 3:25
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Without a doubt there are some managers who employ these techniques, I've seen it both as a consultant and as an employee in companies large and small. But I don't believe that it's a company philosophy at all; at least I've never seen it in that context.

One manager in particular that I reported to would talk with members of my team and push them in to a particular task or approach to solving a problem. A few hours later he'd come back and innocently ask what they were doing, then he'd proceed to belittle them for taking that approach or track. Basically destroying any confidence that they had in him as a manager/leader. Obviously they had no respect for him at all.

He actually told me at one point that he enjoyed creating this dissention in the team. A large portion on my role was to act as a buffer between that manager and my team. Not always an easy position to be in.

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    It's also worth mentioning that good companies and managers do not engage in this sort of behavior. Effective management is all about trust, and abusing the employees, the most valuable asset of any company, will most certainly not harbor that trust. – panoptical Apr 11 '14 at 1:49
  • I agree whole heartedly @panoptical, never saw any value in this approach. Only the down side. – Steve Apr 11 '14 at 1:51
  • My spouse worked with a manager who claimed he liked to work people in a way that it was like he was holding them against a wall, and then letting off the pressure just slightly, and holding them there. – thursdaysgeek Apr 11 '14 at 16:27
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I'll present a contrarian view here, even though I agree with most of the comments if the OPs question is taken at face value. No decent manager would deliberately take that tactic.

There's a unfortunate culture of entitlement and the building up of unjustified self-esteem in young folks these days, and, sadly, some uncomfortable (on everyone's part) attitude readjustment is going to have to happen when they enter the workforce, especially in the first year or two. They probably feel they're being picked on, but really it's the system that has inflated their grades and never demanded true excellence of them that is to blame.

The management techniques I'm familiar with are more aimed at the opposite- to retain employees and maximize productivity by creating a positive environment which may be seen to compensate for the less exciting projects and the middling pay. But that doesn't mean overlooking a 'C+' outcome when an 'A' job is required for fear of the consequences of pointing out areas for improvement (after going over what went right, naturally).

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    Doesn't this just represent a broader range of student capabilities? The percentage of the US population that attended college in the 1920's is pretty miniscule. I'm guessing college grads in the 20's had a pretty high level of entitlement. – user8365 Apr 11 '14 at 17:21
  • While I agree with your thought on the "entitled" generation, even for those people, I don't believe intentionally de-valuing someone is an acceptable management strategy. – cdkMoose Apr 11 '14 at 17:53
  • @cdkMoose Naturally, though even when management direction is given in the most careful way possible it will inevitably be seen as such by some, which was my point. – Spehro Pefhany Apr 11 '14 at 18:09
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    @JeffO I do not believe there was the same expectation of being given "interesting" and fulfilling work immediately. And kids in the 1960s didn't get all get a trophy for sports, there were winners and losers. The ones that played well were the winners, the ones that were not as skilled or capable went home empty-handed and sad, to try harder the next time. – Spehro Pefhany Apr 11 '14 at 18:12
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Nice observation on your part i have observed that its a practice of people suffering from lower self esteem.
A persons current position cannot be a indicator of his future growth always.When a subordinate or junior appears to be more promising then the seniors and given the same time span, shows the ability to reach a higher position, Then the same ability is taken as a subconscious threat by not so competent seniors who are at a higher position more by virtue of time . This might invoke such reaction. But any organization which has a bigger picture in mind will never encourage it .

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I suspect that any management in such a company probably doesn't have the reasoning ability to actively practice this.

However stupid people under pressure behave badly (as do smart people of course) so a bad manager in a bad company is likely to fear the employees and treat them badly.

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