Research by a University of Iowa professor suggests employee reaction to motivational seminars and training sessions in the workplace is tricky to predict. Kenneth Brown, a professor of management and organizations at the University of Iowa, says his findings were a bit surprising.
"A number of people, particularly in the profession of training and organizational development, argue that if you are going to bring people into a room or you’re going to work with group of employees on a change effort that you should really try to create a positive environment, you should try to create positive mood," he says.
As part of his research, Brown and an assistant gave a group of students small gifts when they came to a training session and played music during breaks. They found about a third reacted positively. Another third reacted negatively and the other third basically had no reaction to the gifts and attempt to lighten the mood with music.
"We had some people who, you know, just thought this was kind of neat," Brown says, "…and other people who actually ended up disliking the environment more." In the minds of that group of people, the gifts and the music meant trainers were "trying too hard."
Brown doesn’t classify his research as "groundbreaking," but he suggests it may be a "wake-up call" to those who conduct employee training for a living and assume plying participants with goodies will make the training go more smoothly.
"People who were sort of anxious or neurotic you would think would walk into an environment and then, in the presence of music and gifts, immediately assume they’re about to be fired or some other negative event is going to happen," Brown says. "But we actually didn’t find a relationship with their reaction to these gifts and the music."
In addition, Brown says merely putting up motivational posters — like those marketed by the "Successories" company — doesn’t create a positive work environment. The motivational messages must be linked to a broader company game plan to motivate workers, according to Brown.
"You can’t just get someone in a positive mood by giving them a trinket," Brown says. "Now, if you give people a pay raise or a better job or you’re more supportive of them, there is other research that would suggest that you may actually induce some positive mood states doing that, so maybe what this research says if you want to make everybody happier, you really need to make their circumstances better rather than just doing something superficial."
Finally, Brown says managers may get more mileage with humor in the workplace than they can with "kitchy" and overly-optimistic "Successories"-style messages. He cites the popularity of www.despair.com which sells products with "de-motivational" messages, like "The glass is half empty. Deal with it."
"The general notion that we should be open to humor and finding humor even in some of the toughest work situations is probably pretty darned good advice because that’s one thing that does connect people and that’s one thing that clearly is connected to positive mood and relationship building is the ability to laugh," Brown says.