The national retail federation in the U.S. estimates that retail supports 1 out of every 4 jobs in the United States. Retail is incredibly important to the global economy. In fact, many if not all of us have probably been employed by the retail industry at some point in our lives. As such, most of us understand how critical motivation and culture are in that industry. This is especially true as it relates to employee workplace health and safety.
The interesting thing about “work” and modern research into workplace culture, motivation, and engagement, is that many of the core philosophies of business are being challenged. Even in industries such as retail that come with so much history. Research today is showing a direct link between employee happiness and engagement, with company performance, and ultimately company safety and quality performance.
What does it means to really be engaged at work and look at what drives people to be motivated about the jobs that they do?
There is a behavioral economist by the name of Dan Ariely. One area that Ariely specializes in is human motivations, and specifically how incentives can impact motivation and performance.
One interesting piece of research he conducted was sponsored by the US Federal Reserve (so we know it’s on the up and up). The Fed wanted to better understand the science of how financial incentives and rewards can improve performance. Ie. Bankers wanted to know how to sweeten their carrots and sharpen their sticks to get more productivity out of America. The experiment went like this — Ariely and his colleagues had a series of games of varying skill — similar to the type of puzzles that you would see at the Science Center. Along with each game were 3 tiers of rewards, higher payouts the better one performed. What they found may surprise you.
It turns out that cash is king… Well to a certain extent. As long as the tasks involved only mechanical skill, the financial bonuses worked as expected. The higher the pay the better the performance. However, once the tasks called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward actually led to poorer performance. How can this be? Extrinsic rewards like these actually tend to narrow our focus, which is why they work so well for certain tasks. When you can see the goal, and you need to move in a straight line to get there, rewards are a fantastic motivator to help you get there faster. However, problem-solving by its very nature requires you to have a broader view of the options available, and the path to success isn’t always clear.
The very time-worn business metaphor, to “think outside the box”, is contradictory to the use of extrinsic motivators that actually serve to keep you right in the middle of the box. While these motivators will sometimes be appropriate for particular types of activities, they are for the most part increasingly ineffective in business.
So, if these behavioral scientists are on to something, has the business world been listening and learning? In short, no. The world of business that we know today has not yet adapted management styles to this scientific research. Management as we know it was created to manage through the industrial revolution, where assembly line repeatable tasks needed to be done with efficiency and at volume. This type of management and incentive structure is great for compliance, but not great for engagement.
Through technology innovation and with globalization, many of the easily repeatable tasks of the industrial revolution have been either automated or outsourced. What we are left with in many cases are tasks and jobs which inherently require more problem-solving ability. Consider safety — Is safety purely a matter of rigid compliance or is it often a matter of problem-solving to be able to complete ones work effectively, while still acting in a safe manner. This shift in the type of work we all do is an opportunity for us to go back and look at what science tells us about motivation. Extrinsic motivators (carrots and sticks) don’t encourage problem-solving and don’t create engagement. However, you CAN motivate problem-solving employees and encourage engagement in another way.
Research shows that the biggest intrinsic motivator is autonomy. Autonomy is a common desire to have a say in the direction of our own lives. The workplace is not, and should not be any different, no matter what our particular roles and responsibilities are.
When I was a kid I loved a series of books. They were called Choose Your Own Adventure. These books allowed me – in a time pre-Nintendo – to act out a narrative
where I could be the hero, and 7 year old me, could have an impact on decisions and outcomes. That ownership and autonomy over the results of the story kept me and an entire generation of children engaged. Those same psychological motivators can be applied to work life as well.
So what could having a say and choosing your own adventure, in your own work life, look like?
Some companies are beginning to use these ideas around autonomy and engagement in the “real world”. The example probably most often looked at is Google. Google has a program, or philosophy if you will, called 20% time. With the 20% time program, Google employees actually have to allot 20% of their time to tasks that aren’t part of their core mandate. It’s a time for brainstorming, solving interesting problems, and generally thinking “WAY outside the box”.
It turns out that not only is this a great motivation tool for employees, but the program has paid tremendous dividends to Google, beyond the traditional employee satisfaction and engagement measures. Half of Google’s new products are born of the 20% time program. Some of them went on to be pretty important parts of their portfolio too – Gmail, Google News, and AdSense. You’re probably thinking right now, but that’s Google, and the average business is not.
Here’s another, perhaps more down to earth example — Morning Star Tomatoes. If you’ve never heard of them, they are the world’s largest tomato processor. They have an organization that is as flat as a pancake — no promotions, no titles. Employees are accountable to each other and to their teams and they set their priorities accordingly. The employees are in effect challenged each and every day to look at the problem of how to process and distribute tomatoes, and serve their customers and buyers. In doing so, they must consider how they can do this within the requirements of a safe and healthy workplace, and also consider the expectations of their customers with regards to product quality performance. This freedom of autonomy creates a foundation of accountability. The important thing about autonomy is that it isn’t just about the feeling of flexibility and freedom, it’s about having a tangible and highly PERSONAL sense of achievement. Accountability to the company and more importantly accountability to your teammates and your own reputation. Although they actually “are” an assembly line business, it is by challenging the way they approach their business from the bottom up, that they have exceeded all of their immediate competitors.
When you focus on autonomy, there is a tangible impact on the bottom line.
The folks at Cornell University also did some research that validates this philosophy as well. They studied a group of 320 businesses and categorized them broadly as having traditional “corporate America” command and control org structures, and those who offered their employees a degree of autonomy through flatter reporting structures. The businesses that offered more autonomy ended up displaying significantly higher growth rates, and of equal importance, 1/3 the employee turnover of the other group.
These findings and examples have a direct implication to employee health and safety. Over the years the biggest challenge customers’ voice to us as it relates to health and safety programs is employee adoption. When it comes to engagement with a health and safety program, the more employees can feel a part of the program and a part of the results (both good and bad) the better the likelihood that your program will see success.
In “Transforming Health & Safety” we cover a number of important topics in more detail, including how mobile technology and other technological innovation is putting us on the cusp of another revolution in enterprise health and safety management.