Management Myth # 5—A Satisfied Employee is a Productive Employee

Stanford University researcher Mark Lepper and his team conducted a significant research study in the early 1970s, concerned with the impact of extrinsic rewards on performance. Specifically, Lepper was interested in whether prizes influence behavior in young children.

A brand new activity was introduced to the children at a nursery. The teachers issued the children with creamy white artist’s drawing paper and brand new marker pens; the children were given time to draw with these novel materials. They had never done drawings with marker pens before. Predictably, the children took to the activity with relish. But after exactly one hour, the materials were whisked away to the disappointment of the children.

Several days later, one of the researchers returned to the class and randomly divided the class into two groups to continue the new drawing activity. One group of children were taken to another room. They were given the opportunity to continue their drawings just as they had done before. After an hour, the researcher thanked the children in this group and took away the art material and their drawings.

Human spirit and work is concerned with the immersion of one’s human spirit in their vocation. Sustaining an individual’s spirit at work can have a positive impact in so many ways, including work performance.

© The Author(s) 2017

T. Baker, Performance Management for Agile Organizations, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40153-9_8

The second group of children were offered a prize for drawing their pictures. It was explained to this group that some special prizes would be given to the children who drew really good pictures. The children took to their task, anticipating they might receive a prize for their picture. This control group was given the same amount of time (one hour) as the other group to compete their art work. At the end of the session, the researcher thanked the children as he’d done with the other group. But this time, he handed out a prize to each child in the control group.

One week later the researchers returned to the classroom. The afternoon period consisted of “free time;” the children could choose what they wanted to do with their time. The special paper and marker pens were placed on the tables and easily accessible for the children. However, the children had other options too. They could go outside and run around in the playground They couldplay with the toys in the classroom. Or they could return to the drawing activity. The researchers observed the time the children spent on their chosen activities. To what extent would the prizes given to the children in the control group affect their choices and behavior? The researchers assumed that the children in the control group, who had received prizes, would spend more time on the drawing activity.

But that didn’t happen!

The result was one the researchers didn’t foresee. Their findings challenged conventional wisdom about parenting and education. The children who received the extrinsic rewards for their art work chose to spend less time drawing than those who weren’t rewarded Conversely, the children who didn’t receive a prize chose to spend more of their discretionary time on the drawing activity. The children who were rewarded seemed reluctant to continue with the activity without the promise of a further reward. The initial reward paradoxically reduced the children’s motivation rather than increasing it.

But what was even more surprising is this: The art work of all the children was evaluated by a group of independent judges with no knowledge of the experiment. The result was that the pictures drawn by the children who were rewarded were evaluated as less competent than the pictures drawn by the unrewarded group.

So in summary: The children who received an extrinsic reward spent less time drawing when given a choice—and when they were rewarded, they put in less effort too.1

Is it true that if you’re satisfied with your work, you perform better? There’s a widely held belief that satisfaction and performance go hand-inhand. The pathway to better job performance—according to many managers—is through job satisfaction. This general belief has been around for at least 100 years, despite inconclusive evidence of a link between job satisfaction and job performance. This misguided conviction has led to a range of performance management measures designed to satisfy people at work. We subsequently use extrinsic rewards—usually monetary—to foster a sense of satisfaction on the job.

What is needed to increase job performance, however, is cultivating the right conditions in designing and leading work for intrinsic motivation to flourish. Engaging the “hearts and minds” of people at work is an entirely different source of motivation to being satisfied with the extrinsic rewards of one’s job. We need a rethink about work motivation and the management of performance.

Admittedly, one or two studies show a causal link between job satisfaction and job performance.2 More studies show a reverse relationship; that is, performance leads to satisfaction on the job.3 But the clear majority of research concludes that too many other factors are in play to make the generalized claim that a satisfied employee is a higher performing employee.4 And lots of studies show no relationship between satisfaction and performance.5 So all the research taken together suggests we should look to other means to boost performance other than satisfying the employee with intrinsic rewards.

The answer is literally under our nose. It’s work itself that has the greatest potential to improve (or reduce) personal productivity, apart from the peripheral recompenses for doing the work. Instead of only using the “carrot and stick” approach, we should concentrate on motivating people with the type of work they do and how they do it. There’s no doubting a satisfied employee is better off in lots of ways in comparison with a dissatisfied employee. But we need to challenge this deeply rooted belief that extrinsic rewards bring the best out of people. Sometimes they do get results; they can be effective, now and again. But the carrot and stick isn’t always effective. For widespread and sustained performance, the questions we need to ask are: How do we engage the heart and mind of the employee in their work? How can we make the connection between human spirit and work?

One of the main criticisms from humanists,6 in their response to scientific management, is that it dehumanizes the worker. By separating the planning function from actual work accomplishment, workers needn’t bother to think—the thinking has already been done by management. This division of planning and doing—as logical as it indubitably seems—strips the worker of their autonomy and self-sufficiency. Mastery of work in these circumstances is boiled down to robotically and repetitiously following a series of processes or procedures. And work broken down into small, controllable segments, is often considered meaningless by those called upon to do it, namely, workers. The humanists have a valid point.

Dave and Wendy Ulrich, in their book The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations That Win, explain the significance of understanding how work contributes to a greater cause beyond simply completing a process.7 Although I’ve acknowledged that the nature of work has transformed prodigiously from the days of the factory assembly line, performance management practices we use haven’t kept pace. Work is still fundamentally segmented, regimented, and tightly controlled. In particular, work segmentation is still the prevailing performance management practice we discussed in Chap. 5.

Dan Pink in his popular book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, challenges us to think completely differently about human motivation and performance.8 Pink tells us that the carrot and stick approach isn’t always effective, especially for the relatively new breed of knowledge worker. He claims we need to do more than satisfy the employee with a sprinkling of external rewards. And I think he’s right— as a growing number of authors do.

High performance doesn’t stem from the promise of rewards and incentives for following a set of predetermined systems and processes. As Dan Pink puts it:

For as long as any of us can remember, we’ve configured our organizations and constructed our lives around its bedrock assumption: The way to improve performance, increase productivity, and encourage excellence is to reward the good and punish the bad.9

Where the rubber meets the road ...

Food for thought

Like many parents with young children, I enjoy taking my children to the circus and seeing the wonderment in their eyes from the spectacle. I take our youngest daughter to the circus every year. It's a great joy for us both. The colors, sounds, and smells; It's all an intoxicating sensory delight.

My daughter mostly likes the show ponies. The trainer has a light whip in one hand and a pocket full of treats in the other hand. During the show, the trainer uses both the whip and treats to coax the ponies to do their impressive feats.

It makes me think: This isn't far removed from the way we try to motivate human beings in the workplace. In fact, it is exactly the same! Human beings are treated like circus animals in the main. The manager dangles carrots in front of employees in the form of extrinsic rewards, such as bonuses, and uses sanctions to punish them when they step out of line.

In the circus environment, reward and punishment seems to work really well to get the animals to comply. But does it work as well in the educated workplace of the twenty-first century?

After all, reward and punishment is simple to understand, easy to monitor, and straightforward to administer.

Of course, being satisfied at work is not a bad thing; it does carry many benefits. The paybacks include having a higher than average energy level at work and being less inclined to leave and work for a competitor. So it is important for reasons such as these to cultivate a culture of satisfaction at work. But to think that job satisfaction automatically translates into better performance is a bridge too far. Job performance is complex, involving many moving parts. Some of these performance factors are characteristic of the employee themselves. Other factors have to do with the work environment. And other factors are associated with the nature of the work itself. I believe it’s possible to positively influence these three factors, especially the work environment and the work itself.

Many writers, as I indicated, criticize scientific management as a dehumanizing experience. Taylor paradoxically designed his methodology in part to satisfying workers. But surely being told what to do, how to do it, and how long it should take, robs the worker of their decision-making autonomy and innate need for self-mastery. It’s hard to believe that overly systemized work is stimulating to do. Nonetheless, Taylor said this about scientific management and job satisfaction:

The task is always so regulated that the man who is well suited to his job will thrive while working at this rate during a long term of years and grow happier and more prosperous, instead of being overworked.10

Taylor’s idea of motivation was starkly different to theories of later years. His motivational tactics started and finished with monetary incentives. According to Taylor, work “consists mainly of simple, not particularly interesting, tasks. The only way to get people to do them is to incentivize them properly and monitor them carefully.”11 But jobs have become far more multidimensional than those executed on the old assembly line. Not only have jobs become more complex, they are potentially more interesting and self-directed. Instead of trying to encouraging job satisfaction using monetary incentives—based on the misguided assumption they elevate individual performance—a review is in order. What’s more, aside from the levers of reward and punishment we still persevere with, we should consider how work can ignite the human spirit. How can we organize work to be more meaningful and engaging? As an addition to using carrots and sticks to satisfy employees, there’s doubtlessly plenty of scope to engage people’s human spirit in the work they do.

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