Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 229
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Loving the Work

Research reveals the best choices in giving employees performance feedback.

Occasionally we hear an employee say "I love the work." Wouldn't you like to hear it more often?

As managers, we usually focus on employment conditions like wages, hours, and working conditions. If these efforts are successful, then we may hear employees say "I love this job," but we still don't hear "I love this work."

"What difference does it make?" you might say. Perhaps, a lot.

Jing Zhou, now a professor at Texas A & M University, addressed this question in her doctoral dissertation.

When a person loves the work, he/she is attracted to and energized by the task itself. Sports stars speak of this when they describe their love for their chosen sports, and musicians also describe it when they tell of their pleasure in long hours of practice. Loving one's job can occur without loving the work, and loving one's work can occur without loving one's job.

Wouldn't it be nice to have employees who loved both their jobs and their work?

People who love the work find tasks entertaining and stimulating. They display flexibility in completing tasks. They seek out complexity and novelty. They're likely to discover several ways to complete a task or solve a problem, and some of these might be very creative, and they are persistent.

In her dissertation, Ms. Zhou explored the factors that led average people in a normal business setting to love their work. Here's what she learned. Here's what you can do to help your employees love the work.

Work supervisors have several choices when they comment to employees about their work. They can point out positive or negative things about an employee's work. They can compare an employee's performance of specific tasks to an objective standard, or they can compare it to previous examples of the employee's own performance. Finally, they can make their comments as demands to improve, or simply as information to inform the employee.

For example, to one employee a supervisor might say "You fell below our minimum standards for this task, so you'd better pick it up or we'll have to let you go." This supervisor is pointing out a negative feature of performance, comparing it to a standard, and demanding it be corrected. To this same employee, another supervisor might say "Your performance on this task was 30% better than you did a month ago. I just thought you'd like to know." This supervisor is pointing out a positive feature of performance, comparing it to previous examples of the employee's own performance, and offering the comment as information.

Ms. Zhou conducted an experimental study in which she varied these factors and noticed which ones made a difference.

The second supervisor in the above examples used all the techniques that worked best: 1) framing performance feedback in positive terms, 2) comparing performance to previous examples of the employee's own performance rather than to an objective standard or to other employees' performance, and 3) providing the feedback as information.

There is, however, one qualification for these findings. They occurred when employees had substantial control over the task. They could decide how to complete it, rather than merely following a rigid set of steps that allowed no flexibility. So under these conditions, Ms. Zhou's findings should be very useful.

Reference: Zhou, Jing (1998) Feedback Valence, Feedback Style, Task Autonomy, and Achievement Orientation: Interactive Effectson Creative Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83(2), 261-276.

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