During the spring of 2014, while I was still at American University, I finally decided to take advantage of the employee benefit that provided two courses per semester free of charge. I have been working in higher education since 2007, and I was disappointed that it took me this long to finally utilize this benefit, as I can only imagine how many learning opportunities I left on the table during all those years.

After sifting through the course catalog, I decided on a course titled “Organizational Analysis”, which was offered through AU’s School of Public Affairs. As I was only a little more than a year into my first role as a manager, I figured that this course would help me understand the process by which healthy organizations operate as well as where my responsibilities fit into the equation. The course also caught my eye because just a couple months prior, I had completed a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on Coursera with the same title, offered free of charge through Stanford University. I had such a tremendous experience in the 12-week long MOOC, so I was hungry for more.

Although the two experiences did make me more of a believer in the ability of online education to deliver meaningful content in a highly efficient manner, the purpose of this month’s entry is not to compare the MOOC to the traditional classroom setting. Rather, I would like to focus on the issue I struggled with the most when I first became responsible for managing individuals: workplace motivation. Day in and day out, I would ask myself how I would motivate my staff to do their work well, and enjoy themselves while they did it. I believe each of those elements are exclusive; there are a number of people who do exceptional work, but they aren’t very happy when they do it.

It would be easy to say that workplace motivation rests more with the worker than with the manager. Most of us gravitate towards careers that suit our strengths, and when we are hired, we inherit the responsibility to get the jobs done. But when we stop and realize that we spend as much if not more time at work than with our families, there should be a greater sense of fulfillment at the workplace, and anyone who aspires to a management role should want to create that positive culture.

So what have I learned about how to do this? In my course at AU, we learned about an experiment performed at an electric factory in the 1920’s, leading to a term known as “the Hawthorne effect.” (Named for the factory where the experiment was conducted) In the experiment, researchers adjusted the brightness of the light under which workers performed their duties. When the brightness was raised, productivity increased, but when it was dimmed, productivity still remained at a higher level. The conclusion was that productivity did not increase because of the improved levels of light, but rather that interest was being shown in the workers by the researchers. Therefore, their motivation to work harder was greater than when less or no interest was shown in them.

I provide a very simple summary of the Hawthorne effect, but out of all the things I learned in both my AU course and in the MOOC, it is the one thing that sticks with me the most as I continue to learn how to manage people. Before I started to learn more about organizational analysis, I might have said that the best way to motivate people is to provide incentives. Giving raises or promotions for high quality work, or allowing your staff to wear jeans and a t-shirt on “Casual Friday” will leave folks more motivated to get the job done. I would also have stressed the importance of establishing as efficient a workplace as possible, because if we are operating a finely oiled machine, then people won’t be bothered by distractions.

While I would never be so bold as to say that those ideas bear no merit, what I have learned the most is that people will work hardest when they come to believe that they are valued by the people telling them to do the work. Taking some time to let your staff speak what’s on their minds, or putting yourself in their shoes before passing judgment on something they did or didn’t do are powerful motivators. One thing I have tried to do each month is provide my staff with a professional development opportunity. Usually, this opportunity just takes the form of me providing an article or podcast that relates to the work we do, but what I hope to communicate is that I have an interest in their growth as professionals. And while I’m sure there are more opportunities to improve motivation that I haven’t yet realized, I have found that the strategies I list above have worked pretty well.

In closing, I will leave with a quote from Elton Mayo, a Professor at Harvard Business School who, in 1929, offered this line on the Hawthorne experiments: “The change which you…are working to effect will not be mechanical but humane.” The quote is a good reminder that sometimes, the easiest way to improve the motivation of a staff is to just a show a little faith in them. Amen to that.

By Michael Gulotta