Monday, September 18, 2023

They decorate the walls of break rooms across America—lush, awe-inspiring brightly-colored photos of landscapes or athletes or wildlife, with pithy nuggets of wisdom urging us to make the most out of life.

"Determination: It is the size of one's will that determines success."

"Winners must have two things: definite goals and the will to achieve them."

"Never, ever give up."

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

ken brown portrait
Ken Brown

"If they're part of a broader campaign, with clearly outlined goals and a commitment from management, they may have some impact," said Kenneth G. Brown, Tippie Children Professor of management and entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, who studies employee motivation. He said that no amount of tchotchke giveaways or inspirational sayings will increase employee productivity without a strategy in place first.

"It's challenging to alter peoples' behavior, so inspiring workers to increase their value to a company is not easy," he said. "If the change effort is part of a multi-pronged 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 mug giveaways can be a small part of it."

Brown said research suggests that moving people out of old work habits is difficult, and managers must be clear and persistent about what behavior they want to see. Even when a strategy is well developed and management is fully committed, only some employees may change. His own studies have shown that people who are naturally upbeat tend to react positively to employee motivation techniques, while those who are not naturally positive react negatively.

Which helps to explain, 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 an entire business has sprung up satirizing the motivational industry shows there's a significant number of people who think those posters are laughable," Brown said.

Media contact: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010 (o); 319-541-8434 (c);