Can You Increase Employee Productivity and Satisfaction at the Same Time? – Part One

 At this time of gradual economic recovery, employee performance has never been more important.  That is particularly true in up and coming vertical markets like Life Sciences.  One the one hand, manufacturers need to keep labor costs under control by getting the best effort from each employee. Maintaining high quality standards is vital to your company’s reputation and success in the marketplace.  But no one can afford the luxury of excessive staffing.

 At the same time, many employees may feel chronically over-employed, working longer and more challenging hours just to keep their jobs.  As the recovery gets up to speed, talented employees who feel overworked may start to listen to offers from other companies.  Losing your best people just when demand starts to increase can mean more sleepless nights for biotechnology executives who were hoping to finally get some rest.

 Research in social psychology has revealed techniques that can help executives accomplish two important objectives– increasing employee productivity and job satisfaction – simultaneously.  We’ll consider them one at a time, using the work of experts in the field of human behavior like Dr. Elliot Aronson, the only man in history to win all of the American Psychological Association’s top awards (considered to be the equivalent of the Nobel Prize) and Dr. Robert Cialdini, whose book Influence-Science and Practice was rated by one business publication as the top marketing and sales book of all time.

For years, supervisors and executives have used the threat of punishment or even job loss to try to ensure employee cooperation with company goals.  Is that the most effective way to get the job done?  Consider what Dr. Aronson, along with coauthors Timothy Wilson and Robin Akert point out:

 “All societies run, in part, on punishment or the threat of punishment.  For example, while cruising down the highway at 75 miles an hour, we know that if a cop spots us, we will pay a substantial fine, and if we get caught often, we will lose our license.  So we learn to obey the speed limit when patrol cars are in the vicinity…But does harsh punishment teach adults to want to obey the speed limit? We don’t think so.  Rather, we believe that all it teaches is to try to avoid getting caught.”

In the manufacturing setting, the threat of punishment helps employees do what their employer wants as long as their supervisor is watching.  Controlled scientific research has clearly demonstrated that the threat of humiliation or severe sanctions does not make people want to do forbidden actions less – it often makes them want to do them more – if they think they won’t get caught.  If you’d like to see this for yourself, just try going the speed limit on the interstate when traffic is not too heavy and the police are not around. You’ll soon see how many cars pass you like you were standing still.  Now, under normal conditions, most drivers can speed without causing accidents.  But noncompliance with company standards when supervisors temporarily look away can spell disaster. There must be better ways to get employees to produce superior work when the boss is not around.  There are.

Changing Behavior with Labeling

One better way is a technique called labeling.  What do we mean by labeling?  Effective labeling, in the human resources context, is finding a desirable employee trait (even just a hint of the desired trait) and using it to label an employee:  “Bill, what I appreciate about you is your dedication to quality.  I know that you’re the kind of person that’s determined to produce only product that meets our company standards,” or “Sue, I really like it when I see you show kindness and patience even when customers become unreasonable.  That’s just the kind of customer service attitude we need around here.”  Labeling an employee as one who displays the trait you are trying to encourage is certainly more pleasant for employees than facing discipline for not displaying it.  But can we really say that labeling works?

 To begin with, controlled scientific studies have shown that it works.  Influence-Science and Practice outlines one study by Robert Kraut, PhD that labeled householders in New Haven, Connecticut as generous people.  One week later those same people donated much more money than others to the Multiple Sclerosis Association.  Why does giving people a positive label change their behavior?  Because everyone likes a compliment, even if they’re not sure they fully deserve it.  But once that complimentary label is accepted, they’ll work hard to live up to it.
It can become part of the employee’s self-image.  According to Aronson and co-author Anthony Pratkanis, PhD, “One of social psychology’s best documented phenomena is the self-fulfilling prophecy – the tendency for a definition of a situation to evoke behavior that makes the definition come true.  Dozens of experiments have shown that students who are randomly labeled “smarter” tend to act smarter; sane people identified as “insane” are treated as if they are insane and may begin to act that way; and women labeled “beautiful” behave as if they are beautiful.”

 Statesmen and political leaders have often used this technique to great advantage.  In Influence, Dr. Cialdini relates that one of the best at it was Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.  At the start of international negotiations Sadat would “assure his bargaining opponents that they and the citizens of their country were widely known for their cooperativeness and fairness.”  Henry Kissinger stated, “Sadat was successful because he got others to act in harmony with his interests by giving them a reputation to uphold.”  Employees who are praised, especially in public, for intelligent, diligent and honest behavior at work will work hard to live up to their positive labels.  And they, and their supervisors, will be happier for it.  But some employee behavior is so crucial that executives feel impelled to enforce it with the threat of punishment.  Is there a way to do this that will produce lasting change?  Stay tuned.


2 Responses to “Can You Increase Employee Productivity and Satisfaction at the Same Time? – Part One”

  1. P J Pociluyko Says:

    Larry – This is a good beginning. Labeling is also called “reframing” and it can only work if used with complete sincerity. A. Sadat was brilliant with its use. I suggest reading the work of Watzlawick, Weakland, and Fisch called Change:Principles of Problem Formation and Resolution (Norton, 1974). While the focus is therapeutic change, the text has many applications to management and employment contexts. I would also recommend the work of Jay Hall, who recognized many of the issues you raised in the 1960s and 1970s. He argued that organizational competence (and capacity) through management, drives individual and group productivity in the work place Hall was an academic and later founded Teleometrics International, which specializes in research, management development and training. I have used many of Teleometrics instruments in management development and these have proven most enlightening to the users and help support change in management behavior using a discrepancy analysis ( i.e the difference between what a manager thinks is important vs employee view; or how a manager views their on the job behavior vs employee perception of it value. Hall is one of the few social psychologists who was able to integrate the many ideas of organizational and management consultants such as McGregor, Hertzberg, Maslow, Blake and Mouton, Kurt Lewin, Likert, etc. Of his books, I recommend Models for Management: The Structure of Competence and The Competence Connection: A Blueprint for Excellence.

  2. Says:

    This particular blog post, “Can You Increase Employee Productivity and Satisfaction at the Same Time?

    – Part One Rondeau’s Biotech Roundtable” ended up being remarkable. I’m generating out a clone to show my close friends. I appreciate it-Sonya

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