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?
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:
- Performance – Failure is bad. Success is good. To be good you need to do well and do better than others.
- 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.