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Why Our Views on Workplace Motivation are Harmful and Outdated

In the whole of human civilization, from its birth the splitting of the atom, the concept of ‘human resources’ did not exist. It was only within the last 75 years that human resources (as a field of study and as a profession) came into existence; and even then, most companies base their HR knowledge off of age old ineffective assumptions of what truly drives employee motivation.

In terms of management structure, most people assume that employee motivation is based on fear — specifically of punishment or unemployment — and in many workplaces (especially in late 19th century factories) employee conditions personified this school of thought.

But all of the started to change when in 1960, MIT professor Douglas McGregor challenged these common assumptions.

Workplace Stereotypes & McGregor’s Theory Y

In order to better understand the the psychological underpinnings of employee motivation, McGregor created two distinct theories about behavior in the workplace; which you can see in the tables below.

Theory X represents the commonly accepted fear-based model of workplace motivation. Theory Y represents what one could describe as a more “modern” approach that’s based off of positive viewpoint of employee behavior.

No doubt, as an employee yourself, you most likely have even experienced one of these two managerial archetypes in action.

But what you may not know is that HR professionals (and numerous studies) have concluded that the most productive employees are those that are managed under the style of Theory Y; which begs the question, why is Theory X still in use?

Simply put, the most common reason is lack of proper training. Most corporations often take a literal approach to management which means the training involves day to day job functions, sales requirements etc… But very little of it is focused on organizational psychology and employee motivation; aside from “making sure we’re hitting out numbers.”

Of course, this is where Human Resources would come in — but quite often the duties of the professionals are deemed unnecessary and are too underfunded to be productive.

Even those who practice more of a Theory Y approach may find themselves unintentionally exacerbating the problem due to poor or lackluster motivational company policies. While we know that being compensated for a job well done and receiving recognition for our hard work are important things, we may be underestimating just how big of an impact these factors have on employee productivity. Take this experiment by Dan Ariely for example.

In this experiment, the participants were given a sheet of paper filled with random letters. Their job was to circle those letters who had a matching letter next to them (so two A’s next to each other, and so on). Each completed paper was turned in for a monetary reward — this reward was decreased by a small sum each time.

The experiment also contained 3 conditions:

1. Recognition – The participant would add their name at the top of the paper, hand the paper in, and the experimenter would scan the sheet and acknowledge it verbally (with an uh-huh) and place the paper down.

2. Ignored- The participant would not not add their name to the page. The experimenter would take the paper directly from the participant but would not scan or make any indication of recognition and place the paper down.

3. Shredded –The participant would not add their name to the page. The experimenter would not scan the paper or add any recognition but instead fed the paper directly into the shredder.

The results of the first and third condition are pretty easy to guess. Everyone wants to be recognized for their work and seeing it shredded before your very eyes is not a pleasant experience for anyone. As you can see in the graph below, the participants in the Acknowledged condition continued working until they hit on aver a low of .15c per page. The Shredded condition’s participants stopped before that point (at about .30c).

At this point, Ariely notes that the participants could have cheated in the shredded condition — after noticing their work was not being checked they could have chosen to turn in incomplete sheets for more money — instead they stopped working, which tells us a great deal about our own views of money over happiness.

But what of the final condition?

In the Ignored condition, the results were almost a match to those who have been shredded.

“The bad news is that ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort in front of their eyes.” — Ariely

It is important to note that in this experiment the participants are volunteers and can leave at will, but in the real world things are quite different. The effects of unhappiness in the workplace can have real monetary effects – such as absenteeism, high turnover, and tanking customer service scores; leading to revenue loss for starters.

Although we may view money (and bonuses, etc) as the highest motivating factor of performance, an increasing number of studies, like the one above, are proving just the opposite. If left unchecked, this basic misunderstanding of human behavior will not only result in employee unrest, but could very well be the catalyst for a negative and stagnant company culture.

While we’ll never have one simple answer on the perfect ways to motivate others, we can conclude at the very least that the importance of acknowledgment is paramount for company success in the modern era.


McGregor, D., & Cutcher-Gershenfeld, J. E. (2008). The Human Side of Enterprise. McGraw-Hill Professional. http://www.kean.edu/~lelovitz/docs/EDD6005/humansideofenterprise.pdf

Agrawal, A. (2016, May 18). How Unhappy Employees Can Cost Your Company Millions. Retrieved May 07, 2017, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/aj-agrawal/how-unhappy-employees-can_b_10029960.html

Ariely, D. (2012, October). What makes us feel good about our work? Retrieved May 07, 2017, from https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_what_makes_us_feel_good_about_our_work

Sgroi, D. (n.d.). Happiness and productivity: Understanding the happy-productive worker (pp. 1–17, Rep.).http://www.smf.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Social-Market-Foundation-Publication-Briefing-CAGE-4-Are-happy-workers-more-productive-281015.pdf

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