3 Behavioral Design Principles for a More Motivated, Productive Workforce

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It feels like half the stories on workplace trends lately have been about some form of employee engagement: “Create an Enjoyable Work Culture.” “Giving Employees the Meaning They Need.” “A Guide to Engaging and Motivating and Making Everyone Happy, Productive, Rich, and Not Checking Facebook All Day.”

There are a lot of interesting ideas out there, but I’m struck by how many of these articles about engagement rely on personal anecdotes and experiences. They make for great stories, but are we really supposed to rest our organizations’ futures on a few observations? Wouldn’t it be better to rely on scientifically informed policies?

Let’s improve the lives of workers and organizations by using science to inaugurate the next phase of employee engagement. As the nature of work evolves — with the rise of telecommuting, an increase in freelance labor, the explosion of startups and coworking spaces and other options — it’s important to examine the factors that impact productivity, satisfaction, motivation, and relationships with and at the workplace.

Behavioral science is an emerging field that combines traditional economics with human psychology, and it’s here to help. It reveals the forces behind employee engagement and provides evidence-based principles and practices for organizations that wish to create more dynamic, responsive, and productive cultures.

The following three scientifically informed behavioral design principles can help decision-makers foster more engagement in their workplaces:

1. Autonomy

Having a voice in how they do their work and collaborate with colleagues — that’s the autonomy employees crave. This autonomy heightens an employee’s interest in their work and loyalty to the organization.

When people say they want power at work, it’s not that they want to boss others around. They want to have a hand in designing their own work structures and professional existences. Provide this and they will thrive. Giving people even small choices can increase their sense of control and boost their self-image. Such choices can run the gamut from decorating the work environment to scheduling when they’ll work to being able to shape their job responsibilities.

Organizations can provide healthy levels of autonomy by focusing on outcomes, not processes. Companies should also provide flexibility in work arrangements, balanced with valuable face-to-face interactions that foster networking, productivity, and collaboration.

The design of the most productive and healthy work environment is contextual — unique to each industry, organization, and employee. That’s another reason why it’s so important to get input from your employees, the people who are the most knowledgeable about your workplace. Doing so not only provides your workers with autonomy, but it also makes your organization run better.

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2. Progress Feedback

In The Progress Principleauthors Theresa Amabile and Steven Kramer write, “Feeling progress in meaningful work triggers the sense of accomplishment and other positive perceptions, emotions, and motivations that comprise splendid inner work life.” In other words, progress on meaningful work is one of the most important contributors to work satisfaction.

What are some of the best ways to show employees appreciation and indicate to them that real, important progress is being made? Managers and leaders should offer regular formal and informal constructive feedback. They should demonstrate appreciation by recognizing people frequently, and they should institute organizational systems to do so. When recognizing work, be specific about the progress being made and the importance of that work. Convey an authentic “thank you” by personalizing the recognition experience.

Also, make the recognition itself more valuable. A large body of research shows that cash rewards are not as motivating nor as valuable as thoughtful, non-monetary rewards. Consider experiential incentives instead, like travel opportunities. Of course, not every organization can provide travel, so just remember that tangible, non-monetary rewards are more memorable than cash bonuses. Try to curate a selection of rewards that appeals to a broad employee base.

3. Purpose

Legend has it that, during a visit to NASA headquarters in 1961, John F. Kennedy asked a janitor what he was doing. The janitor responded, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”

Employees, managers, and C-suiters alike get bogged down in the day-to-day routine, but connecting to a higher purpose in our work can help all of us stay motivated and engaged. Connecting to an organization’s purpose brings meaning to a person’s work. That sense of meaning is psychologically essential not just in the office, but in our everyday lives.

Research shows that pay and job satisfaction are only marginally correlated. On the other hand, senses of direction, significance, and belonging derived from the sense of meaning at work can increase happiness, well-being, and productivity.

The most well-known demonstration of the bottom-line impact of providing purpose at work is a 2007 experiment led by Adam Grant. In the experiment, Grant had a group of university call center employees interact briefly with students who had received scholarships from the donations the university call center raised. These employees went on to dramatically outperform call center employees who did not interact with the students, raising a weekly average of $503.22 vs. $185.94. Those brief interactions reminded the call center workers of their purpose — of the impact of even their most mundane efforts.

The key to conveying purpose effectively is to simplify. Focus on one or two key values and explain why the organization exists, not just how it does what it does. Leadership should also articulate such purpose using descriptive words that people can actually visualize instead of conceptual mumbo jumbo. “Increasing technological dominations through a budgetary commitment to exploration beyond the gravitational pull of our planet” does not pack the same punch as seeing a man standing on the moon.

The world of work is changing. If you want to keep up, bring these behavioral design principles to your workplace. There’s no doubt that the employees who seek to be engaged and the organizations that support that engagement will be the ones to thrive.

Jeff Kreisler is editor-in-chief of PeopleScience.com.

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