Iowa Alumni Magazine | August 2009 | News

Inspiring or Tiring?

By IAM Staff
A UI expert puts motivation posters to the test.

Does a poster of outer space inspire employees to "reach for the stars"? Can a picture of a rock climber encourage workers to "scale new heights"? Is it possible for an eagle to motivate people to "soar towards success"?

A motivational poster provides the answer: "The distance to success is measured by your own drive." In other words, it depends on the viewer's attitude.

Kenneth Brown, an associate UI management and organizations professor, came to this conclusion after he invited students to a special training session. One group received gifts right away and listened to upbeat music during breaks, while the other group took breaks in silence and received goodies at the end of the day. The study found that, regardless of the group they were in, people who were naturally positive reacted well to the gifts and music, while people who were inherently skeptical responded negatively.

Brown believes the same goes for motivational posters—colorful portraits of landscapes, wildlife, and athletes can serve as a muse or amusement. In fact, a website called offers "de-motivational posters" with sarcastic sayings such as, "Failure: When your best just isn't good enough." Brown says, "The fact there's an entire business that's sprung up satirizing the motivational industry shows a number of people think these posters are laughable."

So, should managers remove motivational posters to avoid turning their workplace into an episode of The Office? Not necessarily, says Brown. "If they're part of a broader campaign, they may have some impact," he says. "But a motivational poster alone is like a drop of rain in the ocean."

Now, that would make a great de-motivational poster.