Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Staff Morale Destruction 101

This experiment taught us that sucking the meaning out of work is surprisingly easy. 
- Dan Ariely

There's never a shortage of books, articles, and blogs (?!) talking about what makes a good workplace and how to avoid creating a really bad one. With hundreds of books published each year on the overarching topics of management, leadership, and
Shredding workers' spirits comes in many
forms ~ not all of them as obvious.
organizational development, needless to say there's a huge market ready and willing to learn (or at least read about) the machinations of what makes us tick from nine to five (or midnight to midnight, depending on your household staffing requirements). After 24 years working as a domestic servant, I humbly admit that I still cannot definitively tell you what good service is, yet it was fascinating to watch Dan Ariely, a business economics professor at Duke, talk for a bit on TEDs about how terribly easy
 it is
to destroy your workplace morale ~ and subsequently, for household service providers, I would add, the presentation which comes along with it. Not that it can be done and not that it shouldn't... we all know that, already. What made Ariely's talk interesting was his model experiment, which contained three variations of a simple task (much like many of the
At least he's not being ignored.
repetitive duties on domestically staffed estates ~ often simple, non-complex tasks which are, nevertheless, important to both estate and worker) and how radically workers are affected based on supervisors'  reaction (or lack of) to it. This struck me as the most important facet of management which faces principals and their estate managers ~ and their task for (not de-)motivating workers into the service in which they have, in a perfect world, spent consideable efforts to inspire effectively.

If I could improve upon Ariely's findings, to help household managers further, I would, but it's best I stop now and just reprint them here:

We created a sheet of paper with a random sequence of letters on it and asked the participants to find instances where the letter S was followed by another letter S. We told them that each sheet contained ten instances of consecutive Ss and that they would have to find all ten instances in order to complete a sheet. We also told them about the payment scheme: they would be paid $0.55 for the first completed page, $0.50 for the second, and so on (for the twelfth page and thereafter, they would receive nothing).
In the first condition (which we called acknowledged), we asked the students to write their names on each sheet prior to starting the task and then to find the ten instances of consecutive Ss. Once they finished a page, they handed it to the experimenter, who looked over the sheet from top to bottom, nodded in a positive way, and placed it upside down on top of a large pile of completed sheets. The instructions for the ignored condition were basically the same, but we didn’t ask participants to write their names at the top of the sheet. After completing the task, they handed the sheet to the experimenter, who placed it on top of a high stack of papers without even a sidelong glance. In the third, ominously named shredded condition, we did something even more extreme. Once the participant handed in their sheet, instead of adding it to a stack of papers, the experimenter immediately fed the paper into a shredder, right before the participant’s eyes, without even looking at it.
We were impressed by the difference a simple acknowledgment made. Based on [a previous] experiment, we expected the participants in the acknowledged condition to be the most productive. And indeed, they completed many more sheets of letters than their fellow participants in the shredded condition. When we looked at how many of the participants continued searching for letter pairs after they reached the pittance payment of 10 cents (which was also the tenth sheet), we found that about half (49 percent) of those in the acknowledged condition went on to complete ten sheets or more, whereas only 17 percent in the shredded condition completed ten sheets or more. Indeed, it appeared that finding pairs of letters can be either enjoyable and interesting (if your effort is acknowledged) or a pain (if your labor is shredded).
But what about the participants in the ignored condition? Their labor was not destroyed, but neither did they receive any form of feedback about their work. How many sheets would those individuals complete? Would their output be similar to that of the individuals in the acknowledged condition? Would they take the lack of reaction badly and produce an output similar to that of the individuals in the shredded condition? Or would the results of those in the ignored condition fall somewhere between the other two?
The results showed that participants in the acknowledged condition completed on average 9.03 sheets of letters; those in the shredded condition completed 6.34 sheets; and those in the ignored condition (drumroll, please) completed 6.77 sheets (and only 18 percent of them completed ten sheets or more). The amount of work produced in the ignored condition was much, much closer to the performance in the shredded condition than to that in the acknowledged condition.
This experiment taught us that sucking the meaning out of work is surprisingly easy.  
If you’re a manager who really wants to demotivate your employees, destroy their work in front of their eyes. Or, if you want to be a little subtler about it, just ignore them and their efforts. On the other hand, if you want to motivate people working with you and for you, it would be useful to pay attention to them, their effort, and the fruits of their labor.
- From "The Upside of Irrationality" by Dan Ariely