Psychology has taught us a lot about emotion and motivation, and its lessons are applied across every facet of the human experience. The workplace is no different, and many simple psychological principles can be employed to boost the effectiveness of your workplace and improve overall productivity.

While the employee-employer relationship is at its very core one of conditioning -- employees receive rewards in the form of pay or promotions for completing tasks well over time -- there is even more going on that can be leveraged to the advantage of businesses. Here are four crucial psychological principles that can improve employee morale and boost productivity:

1. The Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne Effect describes how a subject alters their behavior when they aware that they are being observed. This psychological principle was discovered in two studies into employee productivity, which were performed in 1924 and 1932 at the Weston Electric Company's Hawthorne Works.

In the workplace, this means that the more attention employees receive from managers, co-workers, and customers, the more likely they are to exhibit more effort and become more productive. In other words: Employees that are given more nurturing attention, compared to those who are simply left alone, tend to be more productive.

2. Offering extended breaks

I have personally seen the Hawthorne Effect in action. When I spend time with my employees I directly see the improvement. The interaction and direct feedback is apparent. 

One psychological principle that's become more widely accepted in recent years is the importance of extended breaks. Studies show the optimal ratio is to rest for 17 minutes after every 52 minutes of diligent work. 

Why is that? Researchers discovered that much like our muscles, our brains tire from prolonged usage. In order to keep them working at optimal efficiency, we need to give them periods of rest and recovery. Encourage your employees to go on brief walks, or consider establishing a rest and meditation room on site if the nature of your work allows.

One 1999 study from Cornell University's Ergonomics Research Laboratory found that workers who took breaks like these were accurate in their work 13 percent more often than colleagues who did not take extended breaks.

3. Displaying company branding

Displaying company branding and symbolism throughout the workplace serves as subtle reinforcements to employee loyalty. While this tactic can be overused, it's an effective way to build a sense of cohesion and unity among your workforce--similar to how nations use flags, or sports teams use logos.

Research from 2016 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that simply adopting a symbol makes individuals feel more like a connected group. This increased connection often leads automatically to more effectiveness and cooperation within the group, and helps highly diverse groups more easily identify with one another.

Symbols are powerful tools. Beyond promoting internal cohesion, they serve as an identifier to others outside of the organization. Brand messaging signals one thing to your employees and another to your competition--symbolism, logos, and the appearance of unity can portray intimidation to competing groups.


PERMA stands for Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. The concept, developed by Professor Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania, focuses on leveraging positivity to reduce stress and fatigue and improve problem solving and cooperation.

II recently started implementing this, and I've found that it can be game changing. In one case, my company started consciously hiring underprivileged individuals--putting our money where our mouth was, in regards to diversity. It's a firsthand account of what a human interaction can do to the landscape of an organization. It hits upon the emotional aspect of humans.

You can also seek to create meaning at your company, for example, through philanthropic endeavors to keep their employees engaged at work. Find what's meaningful to your team and then find a way to incorporate it into their workflow.

Encourage employees to celebrate victories, work-related or otherwise, and share them with the rest of the team. Psychological research shows that positive emotions are contagious, and that if someone is celebrating nearby, the area of our brain associated with celebration and happiness lights up as well.