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5 Common Myths (and Truths) About Workplace Behavior

What many believe about working conditions is often wrong.

Key points

  • Worker satisfaction comes from good work performance and job engagement, not the other way around.
  • Workers are motivated by many factors, and money may not be the most important motivator for many of them.
  • Not all stress is bad. A little bit of stress, or even some workplace conflict, can be energizing.

There are a lot of beliefs about workers and the workplace that many just accept as true. The psychology of work behavior, however, has investigated many of the common-sense beliefs about work and discovered that many of those beliefs are wrong. Here are five of the most popular myths about the world of work, and the truth behind each.

Myth #1: A happy worker is a productive worker.

On the surface, this seems to make sense. Research has suggested, however, that this belief is actually backward. It’s not the happy worker who is the productive worker. It is the productive worker who is the happy (and satisfied and engaged) worker.

The Porter-Lawler model explains this. Workers who produce more tend to get rewarded—they are more likely to get promoted, get raises and bonuses, and receive recognition for their accomplishments. These more productive workers may also be intrinsically motivated by the sense of self-satisfaction from their accomplishments.

It is this—the extrinsic and intrinsic rewards of performing at high levels—that leads them to become more satisfied and engaged workers, and, according to the well-tested theory, this becomes a cycle of more productivity, and a steady, or increasing, state of happiness and engagement.

Myth #2: Money is the best motivator.

Sure, money is a good motivator, but in many instances, it may not be the best one. There are many factors that motivate workers beyond money.

Some workers will forgo higher-paying jobs to do work that is meaningful or that helps other people. Consider teachers, nurses, and workers in nonprofit organizations. They can be highly motivated, yet are often poorly paid.

How about those lucky workers who are extremely highly paid—the one-percenters? It may not be the money, per se, that motivates them. Rather, they may be motivated by the power and status that is associated with the money they make.

The point is that from a management perspective, it is important to know what motivates each individual worker in order to get the best out of them. Social reinforcement—thanking workers on a regular basis for their efforts, for example—and other forms of recognition can be extremely motivating and less expensive. Some workers may value autonomy—the ability to work from home or set their own work hours—more than a little more compensation. (To learn more about money as a motivator, read "Why Money is a Poor Work Motivator.")

Myth #3: Spare the rod and spoil the worker.

Far too many managers believe that being tough and using punishment for poor performance is a good strategy. It’s not! Research is very clear that punitive management is not only bad management, it’s inefficient.

The strength of punishment is to stop undesirable behavior—calling in sick when you’re not, goofing off around dangerous equipment, harassing a coworker. Punishment may decrease these bad work behaviors, but punishment does nothing to encourage positive work behaviors.

Moreover, if a manager relies on a get-tough, punitive strategy, it is inefficient, as the manager becomes a “police officer”—always on the lookout for bad behavior to bring the hammer down and stop it. For punishment to be effective, it has to be immediate (occurring right after the undesirable behavior), consistent (catching all of the bad behaviors), and focused explicitly on stopping undesirable behavior. It’s simply not a good motivational strategy—and it upsets workers, causing resentment, and, perhaps, a desire to get back at the punitive manager and even the score.

Myth #4: All work stress is bad.

Not true. Stress, in small amounts, can be a motivational force. Indeed, the relationship between stress and job performance is curvilinear (an inverted U-shape in a graph), such that small amounts of stress can be motivating, focusing our attention and challenging us to perform up to our potential.

Once that stress to perform gets too great, however, it leads to distress, and can actually cause detriments in both work performance and in our mental and physical health. In short, a little bit of stress can be motivating and challenging, too much stress can lead to dissatisfaction, anxiety, and a desire to leave the stress-filled environment.

Myth #5: A conflict-free workplace is a good thing.

Similar to stress as a motivator, small amounts of workplace conflict—such as when workers disagree about the best way to perform a task, or argue about which new product has the best potential to succeed—can lead to creativity and innovation.

Competition is another form of conflict that can sometimes be beneficial. There can only be one top salesperson, for example; only one team member can be promoted to leader. Competition, like conflict, is associated with achieving a personal goal and performing better than others. If managed properly, a little bit of conflict can lead to beneficial outcomes.

References

Porter, L. W., & Lawler, E. E. (1965). Properties of organization structure in relation to job attitudes and job behavior. Psychological bulletin, 64(1), 23.

Riggio, R.E., & Johnson, S.K. (2021). Introduction to Industrial/Organizational Psychology (8th ed.). Taylor & Francis/Routledge.

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