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Earlier in my career, a global tech company asked me to develop a sales training program. I interviewed a high-performing sales manager who shared her manipulative onboarding plan: encouraging new hires to buy expensive cars, saddling them with substantial monthly payments to drive aggressive sales.

Sadly, this is not an isolated incident from a bygone era. Earlier this month, Leo Lukenas III, a 35-year-old former Green Beret, was pursuing his dream at Bank of America’s investment banking division. Leo’s military discipline translated into a willingness to power through 100-hour weeks and routine all-nighters. Despite his hunger to achieve, Leo recognized the personal tolls and confided to a recruiter about leaving due to the punishing hours and lack of work-life balance.

Tragically, on May 2, 2024, Leo passed away from an acute coronary artery blood clot.[1] While no definitive links between stress and death can ever be proven for an individual case, reputable studies have shown significantly elevated risks of heart attacks and other cardiovascular events for those experiencing extreme workplace stress and burnout conditions akin to Leo’s final months.[2]

The Three Forms of Toxic Motivation

Managers often rely on threats, bribes, and sacrifice to boost short-term productivity:

  1. Threats: Managers may unintentionally wield fear of shame, bad assignments, or termination to push employees beyond their limits. Example: “With so many layoffs recently, I want us to do everything we can to make sure we’re all contributing to the bottom line.”
  2. Bribes: Promises of bonuses or promotions can entice workers to sacrifice health and well-being. Example: “If we ship this product before month’s end, we could crush the entire quarter’s goal. I know it’s going to take late nights and weekends, but it will be worth it when those bonus checks come in.”
  3. Sacrifice: Celebrating overwork normalizes unhealthy habits, tying self-worth to sacrificing personal life for the company. Example: “I want to give a special shout-out to Sasha, who worked 80 hours last week to launch our new campaign. That’s the dedication that makes this company great!”

Even well-intentioned managers can unknowingly perpetuate toxic motivation. Awareness is key to creating healthier, more supportive environments.

Mali Maeder / Pexels

Dangling carrots and wielding sticks – Toxic motivation tactics may provide a short-term boost but ultimately poison the workplace culture.

Source: Mali Maeder / Pexels

The Human and Business Cost

Do incentives drive performance? Can the fear of public shame motivate workers? Does the promise of public congratulations from the big boss encourage employees to burn the midnight oil? Of course these things drive performance. Toxic motivation techniques are the workplace equivalent of performance-enhancing drugs.

Steroids helped the East German Olympic team dominate in the 1970s and 80s. But it came with a terrible loss. Many of those athletes later suffered from heart problems, infertility, and psychological trauma.[3] The country’s medal count soared, but the health of the individuals plummeted. It was a tragic trade-off, with athletes pressured to sacrifice their well-being for the glory of the nation.

The cost of toxic motivation is also staggering:

  • Men in high-stress jobs face a 49 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease.[2]
  • Women in stressful roles had a 72 percent higher risk of developing hypertension compared to those in low-stress jobs.[4]
  • Thirty-eight percent of U.S. workers report severe stress due to toxic work conditions.[5]
  • Employees who report experiencing high levels of toxic behavior at work are eight times more likely to experience burnout symptoms. [6]
  • Respondents experiencing burnout symptoms were six times more likely to report they intend to leave their employers in the next three to six months. [6]

An Antidote: Managerial Support

A large recent study found that managerial support can significantly buffer the negative effects of job stress on mental well-being.[7] The more supported workers felt, the less job stress harmed their mental health, highlighting the crucial role managers play in mitigating the adverse effects of job stress on employees’ well-being.

Managers can provide support by:

  1. Caring about employees’ opinions, well-being, and job satisfaction.
  2. Enabling opportunities for growth and development.
  3. Leading by example and displaying vulnerability and compassion.

When employees feel their managers genuinely care about their well-being and support their professional growth, it can significantly reduce the negative impact of job stress. By creating a psychologically safe culture where employees feel comfortable seeking support without fear of stigma or negative consequences, managers can foster a work environment that promotes mental health and resilience.

Motivation Essential Reads

Companies like Patagonia, known for prioritizing employee wellbeing, achieve sustainable high performance while enjoying industry-leading retention and consistent profitability. Their success demonstrates the tangible benefits of investing in managerial support and employee mental health.

The choice is clear: Companies can continue to chase short-term gains with toxic motivation, slowly poisoning their own wells, or they can invest in creating healthy, supportive environments where employees can thrive in the long term.

A Call to Action

Managers must replace destructive tactics with a culture of empowerment, purpose, and genuine care for employees’ health. For more strategies and solutions on creating a thriving workplace, explore the resources available on this blog and beyond.

Employees, remember that you are not alone in this struggle. Speak up, support one another, and collectively demand change. Utilize resources such as the Job Stress Network and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to learn more about your rights and strategies for creating a more supportive work environment.

Together, we can detoxify our workplaces and create a future where success is measured not just in short-term gains but in the long-term well-being of every worker.

Leo Lukenas’ tragic death is a wake-up call we can’t ignore. Let’s honor his story by building a world where no one has to sacrifice their life for their livelihood.

The change starts now, with us.