“The secret way not to fail is to determine to succeed.”
This quote by Richard Brinsley Sheridan captions an idyllic photograph of a seagull gliding over the ocean at sunrise. The large white letters, SUCCESS, are centered on a stark black background which frames the photograph and ties the words to the picture. Motivational posters such as the one described above are designed to inspire, and one can find them adorning offices, hallways, and restrooms just about anywhere. Despite their availability and commercial success, the question remains: Do motivational posters motivate?
Business theorist Douglas McGregor asserts in his Theory Y of business management that contrary to assumptions of the opposite (Theory X), employees are intrinsically motivated to succeed in the workplace. Employees are productive not only for the extrinsic rewards of paycheck and promotion, but also out of a genuine desire to perform well. Instead of being lazy and avoiding responsibility, employees are motivated by the satisfaction of doing a good job. McGregor’s theory is supported by the earlier research of psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow observed a human hierarchy of needs, where individuals whose basic needs were met naturally sought self-actualization and esteem—intrinsic rewards. So how does this relate to motivational posters?
Motivational posters are roadmaps to the self-actualization and esteem highly sought after by well-managed employees. Ideals such as success, leadership, growth, achievement, and imagination are values which lead to self-actualization and esteem. One might argue that reminders of these values through the presence of motivational posters in the workplace offer aid to employees in maintaining their self-motivation, and more importantly, motivational posters communicate to the employees that management recognizes their quest for self-actualization and esteem, and does not deem them to be inherently lazy individuals who detest work and avoid responsibility.
However, the idea that motivational posters in the workplace are an asset is not a universally shared perspective. While the values advertised on these posters may be the intrinsic values that motivate workers, the use of these posters can be seen by some employees as patronizing or a sign that management is out of touch. Workers are intrinsically motivated, but they do expect (or should expect) safe and positive working conditions, genuine appreciation and recognition, and above-market monetary compensation. Additionally, the inherent intrinsic motivation of employees can be focused and intensified by giving employees a sense of ownership in the vision of the company. But above all, it is important to realize that employee concerns cannot be addressed simply by slapping a few posters on the wall.
So perhaps motivational posters do have a place in the work environment, but they are not magical keys to productivity, and there is the possibility they will do more harm than good. The main ingredient to motivation and productivity in the workplace might just be happy employees, and the key to happy employees is management with good leadership skills.
“Great work is done by people who are not afraid to be great.”
Fernando Flores is quoted thus on a motivational poster extolling “Greatness.” This motivational poster suggests a work environment where employees are valued. Are yours?