It will come as no surprise that work is an absolutely intrinsic part of modern life. It underpins just about every aspect of our society, from working and earning a living on the personal level, to generating revenue on a company level, work keeps the world spinning.
Given that we will spend over a third of our lives at work, the study of the workplace, how it impacts people, and how it operates, is a surprisingly small scientific discipline. Nevertheless it’s been the subject of a great deal of academic research, with a number of theories devised to help us understand and make the most out of every working day.
There’s still plenty to be learned from these theories, and a lot of our work in providing incentives, recognition and employee benefits is greatly informed by these principles. Let’s take a look at some of the most important ones.
We’ll start with an easy one – nudge theory can be applied to just about any area of life, and it really is incredibly straightforward. The core of the theory is this: if you want to change behaviour, subtle and indirect reinforcement – such as recognition or a reward – is more effective than making a rule dictating how someone should act.
In practice, this means that it’s easier to encourage safe behaviour by rewarding people for clearing up hazards or reporting accidents as opposed to enforcing rules and regulations.
When it comes to encouraging healthy eating in the office, making fresh fruit easily available is a useful nudge towards better wellbeing, whereas taking away the vending machine is not.
Incentives and rewards are an excellent example of nudge theory in action. Disciplining staff members who fail to hit sales targets is no way to boost employee motivation and engagement, but providing a goal with a clear path to reward – if people want to take it – is a nice, subtle way of encouraging people to succeed.
Nudge theory has been embraced on a wider scale by both Barack Obama and David Cameron – and while critics of the nudge theory as a tool in wider society would (justifiably) say it’s not effective for creating lasting change, in a smaller, more controlled environment like an office or warehouse, it’s easy to see how it can work.
Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene Theory
What makes someone love their job? Alternatively, what makes someone hate it? These are both fairly extreme positions to find oneself in, and although many a manager would prefer to think their staff are firmly in the former camp, the reality is that most people are closer to the middle – largely neutral.
Frederick Herzberg’s Motivation-Hygiene theory proposes that there are two sets of factors affecting a person’s attitude towards work: motivators, which cause satisfaction when present, and hygiene factors, which cause dissatisfaction when absent. For someone to love their job (or even keep them from hating it), you have to understand what actually keeps them in that neutral positon.
Salary, for example, is classed as a hygiene factor. If employees aren’t earning enough money at work, they will be dissatisfied, which seems obvious enough. However, salary alone is not enough to cause satisfaction – once someone is paid enough, they will be at a neutral point of no dissatisfaction, but no particular satisfaction either.
While plenty of research suggests that higher salaries do provide greater happiness (up to a point), Herzberg would contend that that happiness is nothing more than an absence of unhappiness. It might seem a little bit bleak, but perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that money doesn’t truly buy happiness?
For someone to truly be satisfied at work, they will need additional motivators that go beyond hygiene factors, such as recognition – whether this is in the form of an expanded role or a reward – or employee benefits that give them something more.
What other hygiene factors can make people unhappy? Well, there’s the literal hygiene of working conditions, as well as bad relationships with bosses and co-workers, overbearing supervision at work, or restrictive company policies. It’s important to remember – if the basics aren’t working, then no amount of prizes can buy an employee’s happiness.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Probably one of the most famous workplace theories, we’ve written about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and how it applies to HR a few times over the years, so we won’t go into it in too much depth all over again. If you’re not already familiar with the famous pyramid of ascending needs, then take a look at the explanations in the links above.
The most important lesson from Maslow’s theory is that the things that motivate us to change as we progress up the pyramid – so something that worked last year might not work for the same employee now.
While not outdated, it’s always important to take Maslow’s theory – as with any theory – with a pinch of salt, and remain adaptable to your employees’ actual needs.
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers were a mother-daughter team with a keen interest in personality, and what made peoples’ temperaments so wildly different – even within the same families.
Mostly inspired by the works of analytical psychologist Carl Jung, the pair had no formal psychology or psychiatry qualifications, and instead were self-taught practitioners of psychometric testing – the ways that psychological traits are actually measured.
They devised the test during World War II, primarily to help women who were entering the workforce for the first time to work out what sort of jobs they might be best suited to. By 1962, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) had been widely published and – due in no small part to the ease with which it can be carried out, and the convenient results it provides – is now used extensively all over the world. Over three million official tests are carried out each year, with countless more derivatives taken online with results shared all over social media. The tests are particularly popular in the US, with 80% of the Fortune 100 companies using them.
The Myers-Briggs test is based on defining four personality traits from four sets of two choices:
- Introversion or Extraversion
- Sensing or Intuition
- Thinking or Feeling
- Judging or Perceiving
Essentially, you’re either one thing or the other in the four different categories, giving us the 16 possible personality types. This is what the questions are meant to determine – which traits you lean towards.
The types revealed by a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test focus quite heavily on how you approach problems and work with others– and as such, has been used quite extensively by employers to categorise their employees.
The extent to which companies use these tests varies, and is greatly debated. It is often used as part of hiring processes – as though the quiz (in which people can quite easily give the most desirable answers to help them get the job) is a better indicator than an interview with a future line manager. MBTI is also used in management training, where it’s helpful in understanding the different personalities that make up a team.
It’s not difficult to find anecdotal horror stories about personality codes being printed on office doors, MTBI tests being used as the deciding factor in the final round of interviews, or aficionados of the test treating their prescribed personality type as a full-blown ideology. As with most things in life, moderation is clearly required, and it can be used effectively – provided you know what it’s actually telling you.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is just one of many personality tests widely used in workplaces across the UK – if you’d like to know more about these tests and how they can be applied in the workplace, take a look at our whitepaper Square pegs and round holes: Why creating a company culture that nurtures different personalities is key to future business success below.
Focus on people, not theories
Theories can be incredibly useful in helping managers to understand the way people work when they’re at work, but it’s always important to remember that they’re theories, not rulebooks. They won’t apply to every person in every situation, so be sure to make sure any theories you use fit your people, rather than pigeonholing people to fit your theories.