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Break room posters: Motivational or mockable? UI business professor says big picture more important

  Ken Brown, professor in the Tippie College of Business, teaches one of his courses at the University of Iowa. Brown has done research on the effect of motivational posters.
 
Ken Brown, associate professor in the Tippie College of Business, teaches one of his courses at the University of Iowa. Brown says motivational posters will have a positive effect in workplace settings if they are used as part of a broader campaign. Photo by Tim Schoon.
   

They decorate the walls of break rooms across America, lush, awe-inspiring color photos of landscapes or athletes or wildlife, with pithy nuggets of wisdom urging us onward and upward to accomplish things we’ve never thought possible and make life the best we can make it.

“Determination: It is the size of one’s will that determines success.”

“Challenge: Winners must have two things: definite goals and the will to achieve them.”

“Never, ever give up.”

Some might be inspired by them. Others will mock them. Many won’t even notice they’re there. But do motivational posters work? That all depends on how they’re used.

“If they’re part of a broader campaign, with clearly outlined goals and a commitment from management, they may have some impact,” says Kenneth G. Brown, an associate professor of management and organizations in the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business who studies employee motivation. “But a motivational poster alone is like a drop of rain in the ocean.”

Management posters have hung from workplace walls for decades, though for a long time they mostly focused on things like workplace safety or, during wartime, national security. (“Loose lips sink ships.”) But in recent decades, they’ve become part of an ever-growing industry that seeks to increase worker productivity not just with posters, but with speakers, books, and a variety of tchotskes like calendars and coffee mugs.

But Brown said that no amount of giveaways or inspirational sayings will increase productivity without a strategy in place first.

 

"If they’re part of a broader campaign, with clearly outlined goals and a commitment from management, they may have some impact. But a motivational poster alone is like a drop of rain in the ocean."

—Kenneth G. Brown,
associate professor of management and organizations

   

“It’s hard to alter peoples’ behavior, so getting workers to increase their value to a company is not easy,” he says. “If the change effort is part of a multipronged strategy with committed management working to create change, and they create a sense of urgency that change is needed and clearly explain the reasons, then posters and coffee mugs can be a small part of it.”

Unfortunately, he says management often drops the ball when trying to change employee behavior. Research suggests that moving people out of old work habits can be difficult, and managers have to be clear and persistent about what behavior they do want to see.

Still, even when a strategy is well developed and management is fully committed, only some employees may change, as suggested by a study Brown once conducted.

The study involved giving a group of students small gifts when they came to a training session, and playing music during breaks to perk up their moods. A second group of workers, a control group run for comparison purposes, received their gifts at the end of the day and heard no music.

What he found was that people who were naturally upbeat and positive reacted positively to the gifts and music, and their moods became more positive. However, those who were not naturally positive actually reacted negatively to the gifts and music. Brown suspects this is because the less positive individuals are skeptical and question the motives of the experimenter.

Which might explain Despair.com, a company that sells a line of “de-motivational” posters mocking their ultra-sincere counterparts by sarcastically encouraging people to accept the fact that they’re losers. (“The glass is half-empty: Deal with it.” “Adversity: That which does not kill me delays the inevitable.”)

“The fact there’s an entire business that’s sprung up satirizing the motivational industry shows there’s a significant number of people who think those posters are laughable,” Brown says.

Brown’s study, “Giving Goodies in Training: Are There Benefits?” was conducted with former UI business student Leslie Shayne and presented at the 22nd annual meeting of the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology in New York City.

by Tom Snee

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