How Your Workplace Might Be Making Bad Decisions For You

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Nov 16, 2016

An environment speaks a thousand words

The objects around our homes and our offices say a lot more than we think they do. And sometimes, they don’t exactly say what we want.

Research has shown that environments themselves can convey which behaviors are considered ‘normal’ when people are in them. They even encourage certain types of behavior when people enter them.

In an age where consulting and co-working spaces are the new norm, and offices are no longer where an employee will stay from 9-5 for the next thirty years, do we want our workplaces to be conveying the wrong messages? Can we really afford for employees to be surrounded by an environment that stifles their productivity and their work?

But how do you change what message you are putting out there?

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We make 35,000 decisions each day, often in environments that aren’t conducive to making sound choices. 

At TDL, we work with organizations in the public and private sectors—from new startups, to governments, to established players like the Gates Foundation—to debias decision-making and create better outcomes for everyone.

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Make people feel like they belong

Belonging is one of the most important factors for a workplace. If people feel like they don’t belong somewhere, it can seriously impact how they work.

In 2009, research found that people could decide whether they wanted to join a group  just by looking at the group’s physical environment. Environments with lots of objects that are obviously linked to male-dominated areas (eg a Star Trek poster for computer science) were enough to make women feel like they didn’t belong there. And this made them not want to join teams that worked in these environments.

However, there is hope! By having objects that were similar but not so male-focused (eg a landscape poster), women’s belonging and interest was restored.

The main take home message from this is that people’s own identities are important for the environments they feel good in. Workplaces should focus on avoiding having lots of objects that prime the idea that only certain people belong there. But in practice what does this actually mean?

Rather than having a big company sign that highlights how amazing the business world is, workplaces should show off how great it is to be a part of their team. Kay et al (2004) even found that the presence of common ‘business objects’, such as briefcases and boardroom tables, made people more competitive.

So having photos of your actual team all out for lunch together or at the Christmas party could go a long way to showing people that you have a great team identity, and that they could belong in your environment.

Then, what effect does the workplace have on people once they feel like they do belong?

Give the walls a motivational makeover

Once people are within a workplace, the kind of motivation they are given can also impact the way they work. And the environment could be nudging them towards the wrong type of motivation.

There are two main ways at looking at achievement:

  1. Performance – Failure is bad. Success is good. To be good you need to do well and do better than others.
  2. Mastery – Slip-ups happen. You need to break things to make things. You might make mistakes, but you will learn from them and learn new things along the way too.

A lot of the time workplaces can be nudging people to be motivated towards performance. Yet, time and time again, having a mastery attitude has been shown to be much better for performance than having a performance attitude. It is definitely easier for people to persist at challenges with a mastery mindset.

A common example of a workplace promoting performance might be having a visual record of how many sales everyone has made and rewarding the best salesperson. Or having a list of what the team needs to achieve for the month. The perfect image of performance motivation is the ‘top scarer’ leaderboard in the film ‘Monster’s Inc.’, and how all of the employees are obsessed with who the top scarer is every day.

The AI Governance Challenge book

The AI Governance Challenge

Yet companies can use some priming to nudge workers into a mastery attitude instead. Instead of buying posters that shout ‘Failure is not an option!!’, workplaces could be kitted out with slogans that chant ‘success is how high you bounce after you fall’ or ‘you never know unless you try’. Research has shown that priming people with mastery can lead to them performing better, even if they usually have a performance attitude!

Reclaim your physical environment

So right now your workplace could be deciding who belongs there, and it could be telling some talented people that they don’t. It could also be encouraging the people that do belong there to have the wrong attitude to work.

By thinking about what the objects in your office really say about your team, you can start to help everyone around you make the right decisions about where to work, how to work, and how to overcome those challenges that face us every day at work.

About the Author

Jonathan Line

Jonathan Line

University of Sussex

Jonathan is a psychology student at the University of Sussex focusing on workplace behavioural science. He specializes in how people interact with their built environment, and the impact this has on their habits, self-regulation and productivity at work.

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