Have we been getting staff motivation wrong? HRM takes a look at some new research on workplace motivational practices.
Two new studies suggest that some trends in workplace motivation aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. The first demonstrates the benefits of giving rewards immediately upon completion of a task, rather than later. The other research found that, surprisingly, workplace mindfulness practices can be demotivating.
Upfront rewards for long-term gains
Many organisations reward staff with a bonus or a promotion at the end of the year – often after an annual review – taking into account any successful projects they’ve completed. But this might be the wrong approach, according to research from a recent issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Assistant Professor of Marketing Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach, the authors, suggest that one way to boost staff motivation levels is to offer quicker rewards.
In one study people were shown two different images and asked to spot the difference. By introducing an immediate reward, Woolley saw a 20 per cent increase in participants’ eagerness to continue doing the same task when compared to those who expected to receive a reward a month after the completion of the task.
Not only does rewarding sooner rather than later motivate the employee to do a better job in the immediate sense, the research also demonstrated long-term motivational increases. Due to their previous award, employees were likely to continue the same tasks in the future with similar gusto.
Woolley explains to the Cornell Chronicle: “If you have a hobby – say you like to knit or quilt – the process itself is enjoyable, it’s intrinsically motivated. You’re doing it just for the sake of doing it, rather than for the outcome.”
“The idea that immediate rewards could increase intrinsic motivation sounds counterintuitive, as people often think about rewards as undermining interest in a task. But for activities like work, where people are already getting paid, immediate rewards can actually increase intrinsic motivation, compared with delayed or no rewards.”
Timing is more important than size
In the same article for the Cornell Chronicle another study by the researchers is referred to. In it, participants showed a 35 per cent motivation increase when receiving an immediate reward as opposed to a 19 per cent increase for those who were given larger rewards, such as a higher bonus, at a later date.
So taking a “little by little” approach to staff bonuses may boost engagement in daily tasks, benefitting an organisation in the long run.
Take away the zen focus in the workplace
Mindfulness has been a trending topic in the workplace for some time, with organisational giants such as Nike and Google offering their staff dedicated meditation areas in which they can switch off. In a recent New York Times article, experts Kathleen D. Vohs and Andrew C. Hafenbrack, suggest that this may not be the best way to instill optimum levels of motivation within your organisation. In fact, it could be working against you.
Vohs and Hafenbrack quote a study in which participants were divided into two. One half received a beginners guide approach to mindfulness, being gently coaxed through the various exercises – remember to keep breathing, focus your mind on one thing, bring your attention to how your body feels. The other half of the participants were instead encouraged to let their minds wander or to read or write something during the session.
Following this, participants were given a mundane task to complete, similar to something they’d do within their day-to-day work routine. Before completing their task they were asked to rate their levels of motivation regarding this specific task.
Those who had undergone the uninterrupted meditation session reported lower motivation levels than their counterparts. They didn’t want to put as much time or effort in – they “didn’t feel as much like working”.
The writers suggest that meditation put the subjects into a state of calm and serenity, where they weren’t as focused on the future. While it sounds wonderful, this state is not that conducive to getting work done.
Boosting performance with motivation
These studies didn’t show a correlation between meditation and poor quality work. In fact it suggested that on average mindfulness had little effect on employee outcomes whatsoever, which contradicts previous studies.
While there are obvious positives to gain from mindfulness practices, such as a decrease in overall stress levels which can increase your focus, HR professionals should be aware of the correlated loss of motivation.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that rewards should be given “before” the completion of a task and not after. This was a misinterpretation of the research being referred to. We apologise for the error.
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