Hang in there. No excuses. Be the change. These phrases and others have been printed on posters hung in offices, classrooms, and even bedrooms around the world, usually accompanied by pictures of breathtaking scenery or heartwarming animals. Yet, while most people laugh off motivational posters as trite and meaningless decorations, researchers are beginning to wonder whether these images and messages could actually inspire people to do more, higher-quality work.

External and Internal Motivation

Before we can determine whether motivational posters work, we must understand the science of motivation. Psychologists and other researchers have found it easier to study motivation by considering the issue in terms of its location: outside or inside the individual.

When a person feels compelled to work due to a reward or punishment, he or she is experiencing external (or extrinsic) motivation. The reward or punishment could be tangible, like a trophy or money, or psychological, like praise or media attention – as long as it comes from someone or something outside the person’s body or mind. Conversely, internal or intrinsic motivation arises from within a person. The rewards or punishments are the person’s own thoughts and emotions, such as enjoyment of an activity or personal curiosity.

It is common knowledge that offering workers rewards often encourages them to work harder. However, researchers have discovered that an overabundance of external motivation can actually decrease workers’ intrinsic motivation, leading to lower productivity. This phenomenon is called the over-justification effect: Workers place too much emphasis on extrinsic reinforcements of behaviors, so their intrinsic drives diminish. Thus, it behooves employers to be especially careful with when and how they offer external motivations.

Fortunately, motivational posters serve as sparks for internal motivation. Looking at the poster provides no definite or intangible reward; rather, posters encourage people to reignite personal ambitions and energies.

Reputation and Motivation

How motivational posters improve a person’s drive to be and do better requires an understanding of how people view and present themselves. According to psychologist Dr. Edward Higgins, people have three types of self: the ideal self, the ought self, and the actual self. The ideal self is what a person hopes to become, the ought self is how a person should behave to obtain his or her ideals, and the actual self is a person’s true, current behaviors and attitude.

The ideal and ought selves motivate people to be better and avoid mistakes – providing that intrinsic motivation. Motivational posters tend to trigger reminders of the ideal self, spurring people to redouble their efforts to reach their dreams.

What’s more, people who hang motivational posters in their workspaces – or post motivational quotes on social media – often cultivate a reputation for determination and effectiveness. Thus, to maintain that positive status, such people must work harder to live up to those messages. Hanging a motivational poster might keep a person accountable to their dreams by alerting those around them to their motivations and intentions.

Other Office Design Motivators

Other Office Design Motivators

Posters aren’t the only features of an office that can motivate staff and increase productivity. In fact, one study found that a worker’s physical environment is the number-one determiner for his or her ability to focus. Therefore, while business leaders are plastering their walls with motivational posters, they might also consider the following workplace design issues:

  • Lighting. Poor lighting can cause physical health issues, including eye strain, headaches, fatigue, and depression, so good lights are easily among the most important features in an office. Natural light should be a priority, but natural light bulbs are an adequate substitute.
  • Seating. Sitting is the new smoking, as they say, so workers who can obtain standing desks should strongly consider it. Those who must sit to work should invest in an ergonomic chair and an adjustable desk to keep the monitor below eye level.
  • Coloring. Colors have a profound effect on mood. Blue is known to incite productivity, but workers should be permitted to decorate their spaces with colors that help them stay focused.
  • Heating. Most offices are kept at a frosty 65 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit – despite evidence that productivity increases with the temperature. If employers are unwilling to touch the thermostat, employees should be allowed to bring space heaters and blankets.
  • Laughing. An overly stressful environment is not one filled with motivated workers. Instead, since workers often spend as much time at work as at home, offices should be places of community and inspiration, where everyone feels welcome and appreciated. Smiles and laughter are the best decorations for workplaces interested in excess motivation.

Posted by Igor Ovsyannykov

I'm a digital nomad and entrepreneur bouncing around South East Asia. When I'm not working here, I'm out taking photos for Fancycrave.com. Follow me on Instagram: @igorovsyannykov

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