Editor’s note: This is a contributed post by Mary Prescott, community manager at WorkZone.com, a web-based project management software company. You can contact her on Twitter. When she’s not working, you’ll find her reading fiction or hiking with her dog.
Traditional management styles are built around strict adherence to authority. Workers are expected to be "passive". They take orders, they follow instructions, and they follow. This style of management works quite well for assembly line and factory work, but its terribly counterproductive in fields where innovation, creativity, networking, and service play a crucial role – which is to say, most modern workplaces.
While this is becoming increasingly obvious, it’s much less obvious why this seems to be the case. Why is this management style so ineffective in modern settings? The answer lies in what could be called the "passive state" versus the "active state" of mind.
While these terms aren’t used by psychologists, the evidence points to such an effect, and the implications for business are crucial.
Recommended Reading: Best Of Tools For Managing Web Projects
Passive Players, Low Productivity
If you’ve ever sat down and watched TV for too long, you’ve felt the effect of low alpha waves on your brain. Alpha waves occur in your brain during "relaxed" states, when your mind isn’t actively engaged. While some "relaxation" is clearly good for the brain, it’s not so good when you’re trying to get something done, and too much of it has a negative impact not just on your productivity, but on your well-being.
The Implications Of Alpha Waves
In one experiment, scientists found that alpha waves were a strong predictor of mistakes. In the experiment, students’ brains were monitored while they took a test. If their brains slipped into alpha-mode, they were much more likely to make mistakes.
Alpha waves are also closely tied to daydreaming, and they literally inhibit brain activity, pushing important tasks out of conscious awareness. What’s worse, daydreaming has been shown, scientifically, to lead to unhappiness.
No matter how much our intuition tells us that escaping into daydreaming will make us happy, the evidence points in the other direction. Unhappy people daydream more often, and people who daydream tend to feel worse afterward. Focusing on the task at hand, no matter how boring, leads to happiness.
Nuclear power plants have even started giving employees machines to monitor their brainwaves. They emphasize reducing alpha wave activity, and boosting beta waves, which indicate that the employee is more focused and concentrated on the task at hand.
Alpha Waves & Creativity
Why all the talk of alpha waves and daydreaming? Well, both tend to occur when somebody else is in the driver’s seat. Alpha waves take over when we are watching TV, or sitting in a meeting, when we are following orders that don’t require too much thought, and when we are doing repetitive tasks.
A scarcity of alpha waves makes creativity difficult, since we need to daydream to come up with new ideas. It also means high stress, because the brain is never getting a rest.
Turning Off The Active Switch
The thing is though, most people already have a healthy balance of alpha waves. But when they are encouraged to stay passive, instead of taking an active role, it can become difficult for them to switch gears. They become uncomfortable in active roles.
It becomes difficult for them to deal with unexpected problems. They keep opinions to themselves, and they end up daydreaming so much that they make mistakes and lose morale. The modern workforce needs something more than somebody who can only follow orders.
In a workplace that is of a healthy environment, workers will have some relaxation time (where daydreaming can occur, and creative bursts can happen) and also enough control over their own actions, enough of a role in planning, and enough ownership of their contributions, that they will feel empowered, and comfortable taking charge of their own problems.
The Complicated Role of Incentives
If the modern worker must take on an active role in defining and sculpting what they do at work, what is the role of management? Modern managers know well enough that employees don’t necessarily take on this active role simply because management takes a less authoritative stance.
Management that simply "gets out of the way" tends to breed a workforce of employees who will opt to play solitaire and chat around the water cooler, rather than get things done. The most obvious answer to this question is incentives.
But incentives play a more complicated role than you might think. Some studies have shown that incentives can be harmful to creativity. Meanwhile, incentives built on broken metrics can be detrimental, encouraging employees to maximize that metric at any cost.
Find The Right People
A lot of discussions on this subject bring up the concept of "intrinsic motivation." In other words, the task itself is the reward. Needless to say, workers who feel motivated by the work itself are going to put in more effort. But there’s no way to create intrinsic motivation. A worker either loves their work, or they don’t.
The only way to have an intrinsically motivated workforce is to hire the right people, people who love the kind of work that needs to get done.
Science Says You Should Praise More
Aside from intrinsic motivation, employees need to feel that their work is valued. Studies have shown the crucial role central to motivation that dopamine, a brain chemical, plays in the workplace. When we are praised for accomplishing something, we feel inclined to keep at it. Without that hit of dopamine, we lose that motivation, and we look for our dopamine elsewhere (perhaps a game of Farmville).
Needless to say, having an employee of the month program isn’t going to be enough, since it only helps one person feel more motivated, and everybody else feel jaded.
Praise must be a regular part of management and it must be offered for small achievements. Sadly, only 30 percent of workers say they’ve received any praise from management in a week. This is disconcerting, because most employees need to receive praise at least weekly, and better yet daily, to stay fully motivated or they will lose morale and overall productivity will drop.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize that different people like to be praised in different ways, and that you should only offer praise for behaviors that you want to continue.
Finally, incentives, whether financial or emotional, aren’t necessarily bad for creativity as some studies claim. Instead, more clever studies have found that only traditional productivity incentives hurt creativity. If it’s explicit that the reward is specifically for creative behavior, it does in fact encourage creative behavior.
Making Autonomy Work
Now that we know we need workers to take on an active role in the workplace, and that incentives and praise play a crucial part in this, how do we make it work? How do we give employees autonomy over their work, and still maintain a company culture, and adhere to our goals?
1. Explain the value of the goal, so that workers will naturally choose to adopt it as their own.
2. Let employees choose how to reach the goal on their own, rather than imposing it on them. To avoid the problem of procrastination, allow employees to set various short term goals to achieve their larger goal.
3. Experiment with a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE). When CEO Jeff Gunther experimented with a workplace that focused entirely on results, not on when employees came or left, or how they did the work, the results were so dramatic that he decided to implement the policy permanently.
4. Clearly define which tasks can be completed independently, and which need to be completed as a group. Those that must be completed as a group will require face time. You will need to put a system in place that ensures teams stay connected, and that "slackers" don’t let the rest of the team do the work for them.
5. Help employees clearly define how they work best. Some employees appreciate autonomy more than others. Some feel comfortable defining large scope goals for themselves, while others would prefer to define only short term, interim goals.
Various studies and workplace experiments have shown that autonomy has positive benefits. In workplaces where complex tasks and problem solving are common, autonomy boosts productivity and innovation.
Remember: an active worker feels motivated, is less likely to make mistakes, and is more likely to stay committed. Traditional management isn’t built to keep workers in an active state of mind. We must embrace autonomy, praise, and smart incentives if we wish to run innovative, productive workplaces.