When it comes to employee engagement, no news is not necessarily good news. The results of a recent study reached the (perhaps unsurprising) conclusion that employees feel less engaged if they believe that important information about the business is being withheld from them. However, the study also found that this conclusion applies regardless of whether the news is good or bad.
As part of the study, researchers Dr Brandes and Donja Darai of the University of Zurich designed a new version of the ‘dictator game’ to see how information sharing affects motivation.
The two-person exercise involved participant ‘B’ trying to motivate participant ‘A’ to transfer to him/her as much money as possible. ‘A’ was paid £5 or £10, but didn’t know which, and then had to decide whether to transfer the money. ‘B’, who knew how much money ‘A’ had been given, could spend £1 to let ‘A’ know whether they had £5 or £10. Therefore, participant B could choose to spend £1 to give participant A the bad news they had received only £5 rather than £10.
Participants played the game up to 10 times, each time with a new partner. Dr Brandes explained that the communication from ‘B’ to ‘A’ was designed to mirror managers’ opportunity cost of communication in the real world.
The study found that, when ‘A’ didn’t know if they had £5 or £10, the amount they transferred to ‘B’ was 48% than when ‘A’ had sent them a message to let them know the bad news that they had been given only £5 rather £10.
At first glance, this is a surprising finding. Even in the absence of information sharing, participant ‘A’ knows that he/she had at least £5, so how could the decision of ‘B’ to share bad news motivate ‘A’ to transfer a larger sum of money?
According to Dr Brandes, “We think that information sharing helps participant B to shape A’s perspective of their relationship. After all, a person who is willing to spend money on information sharing is likely to be a nicer person than a person who does not spend the money. Ample research in economics and psychology shows that people are willing to share more with those who they perceive to be nice.”
This theory was supported by the outcome of a different version of the game in which ‘A’ knew if they had £5 or £10 irrespective of ‘B’ sending a message. However, the average amount transferred by ‘A’ to ‘B’ were still 40% lower when ‘B’ had not sent a personal message telling ‘A’ how much money they had received – even though ‘A’ already knew.
The results of this study suggest that, even if news is widely-known in an organisation, employees would still be motivated if their manager contacted them personally to let them know.
Dr Brandes said: “Our data provides clear evidence that people are not only motivated by money. Instead, informing them about relevant developments in the work environment – even if it has already started to spread within the organisation – can also boost work performance.”
Now 30 years old, MSB has strong track record of providing public and private sector organisations with valuable insights into employee engagement levels and recommendations on the practical steps required to improve them.
To learn more about MSB’s work in this field, please visit the employee engagement page on our website.