Merge's Blog

So what really motivates employees?

In today’s fast-paced world, you’d expect the biggest workplace challenge for business professionals would be the rapid advance of technology, or the need to keep abreast of the competition, or the myriad of options when it comes to raising financial capital.  Yet over and over again, the managers and supervisors I work with tell me something completely different.  “Managing and motivating employees” is their toughest challenge they tell me.  “Not that the other decisions are unimportant,” they explain.  “It’s just that if you are having trouble inspiring the troops, the other challenges can become secondary.”  There are no magic pills when it comes to encouraging and motivating your staff (I wish), but one of the answers to this leadership conundrum, believe it or not, has been known for quite a while.  In fact, the basic principle of human motivation that helped revolutionize today’s theory and practice of leadership was actually discovered, quite by accident, in the early 1930’s.  The Hawthorne Effect, as it has come to be known, demonstrated that the mere act of showing people that you are concerned about them usually spurs them to better job performance.

Here’s a quick history lesson.  Between 1927 and 1932, Harvard Business School professor Elton Mayo conducted a series of experiments in Western Electric’s plant in Hawthorne IL.  His objective: to establish the relationship between working conditions and productivity.  Specifically, he was interested in finding out what effect fatigue and monotony had on job productivity, and how to control them through variables such as rest breaks, work hours, temperature, and humidity.  He took six women from the assembly line, separated them from the rest of the factory, and put them under the supervision of a manager who was known to be more of a friendly observer than a strict disciplinarian.  Mayo then made frequent changes to their working conditions, but always discussed and explained the changes in advance.  Quite unexpectedly, he stumbled upon a principle of human motivation that has now come to be known as the Hawthorne Effect.

Here’s what Mayo found.  When he improved the working conditions for this group of workers, their productivity went up as expected.  However, when he took away their rest breaks and reinstated the previous working conditions, surprisingly their productivity went up even further!  Mayo had discovered a fundamental concept that may seem obvious today: workplaces are social environments.  When the women were singled out from the rest of the factory workers, it raised their self-esteem.  When they were allowed to have a friendly relationship with their supervisor, they felt happier at work.  When he discussed changes in advance with them, they felt like part of the team.  He had secured their cooperation and loyalty, and this was why productivity rose even when he took away their rest breaks!

Would you consider your workplace to be a social environment?  C’mon, spill the beans – tell us what your workplace is REALLY like. And no, you don’t have to tell us where you work (your email address won’t be visible to anyone but our blog administrator).

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