Read the text carefully and answer the questions that follow it. Use your own words throughout as far as possible.

You pick up your coffee mug and it tells you: ‘Dare To Soar… your attitude almost always determines your altitude in life1.’ Now there’s a thought… As your heart beats a little bit faster2, you gaze at the elegantly-framed poster hanging above your desk. On it, an eagle plucks a fish from a river: ‘Challenges,’ screams the caption. ‘Accept the challenges so that you may feel the exhilaration of victory.’ Wow, your pulse is really racing now2. You pick up your office pen, and its legend tells you to ‘Make It Happen.’ Immediately, you start scribbling your market-beating idea on a notepad.

Do you feel motivated, or merely manipulated? That depends on whether you are a Sensor or a Hard. Sensors are those who believe—and have built multi-million-pound business on the theory—that workers can be made more productive by being cajoled with uplifting aphorisms3 emblazoned on the ‘office décor.’ Tosh, say the Hards, who insist that patronising attempts to motivate workers lead to resentment and lost production. Whichever side of the fence you stand on, the Sensors are undeniably in the ascendant4. Successories, a US company, sells millions of dollars-worth of these bureaucratic accessories a year, and several other companies are competing for a growing market.

Office design has come a long way since the 1970s. Back then, workers pinned up posters—of a kitten, say, clinging by its claws to a table top, with the caption ‘Hang on in there’—to give themselves a pep talk6 and bring a personal touch to the drab uniformity of their offices. Now, such decoration is likely to be part of the corporate plan, the brainwave of some whizzkid in personnel7.

‘It’s a shorthand effort by management to say to staff, “This is what we want more of here,”’ says Rick Roessler, a business school professor. ‘There’s a huge market for it. It’s to make workers perform in a way consistent with the organisation’s objectives. But the message is ambiguous, to say the least.’

What is a clerk to make of a poster in which a crew is rowing on a river in a beautiful misty dawn, above the caption: ‘Teamwork… is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishment toward organisational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.’?

If you are like Barbara Fenn, a legal secretary, you get the impression that, after you have given 20 years’ loyal and hitherto uncriticised service, the boss suddenly thinks you lack team spirit. Ms Fenn and a few colleagues found the rowing poster ‘so insulting’ that they started an organisation called Successories Hurt Employees. Among other things, the organisation produces posters where the rowers splash helplessly in the water after capsizing.

In a report entitled Simple—Or Simple-Minded, a New York analysis firm, Conference Board, blasted the concept of motivational posters, saying: ‘It’s tough to find an authority on motivation who doesn’t scoff at the suggestion that posters urging ‘Enthusiasm’ or ‘Success’ might foster anything but scepticism.’

To be fair to Successories, it does not claim that its posters and mugs are a substitute for proper management, merely a supplement to it. ‘If management is saying one thing and doing another, then our products are not going to change the way employees feel about their employers,’ says Mac Anderson, Successories’ chairman and founder.

Quite so11. There is not much point in sticking up a poster depicting an incredibly difficult golf hole above the caption: ‘Risk… you can’t reach your goals without occasionally taking some long shots,’ if the whole corporate culture is averse to12 taking chances. And Successories frankly admits that some of its products are ‘trinkets ‘n’ trash.’ Don Pesceone, Successories’ sales manager, told Conference Board: ‘I’m just horrified by them. People love them, and I don’t know why.’ And that is the sting in this tale13. An increasing proportion of customers are not managers at all, but individual self-improvers who calculate that maybe, just maybe, the elixir of life lies in cute banality14.

(adapted from Hugo Gordon’s ‘What Kind of Mug Needs a Message Like That?’)


1 What is the slogan ‘your attitude almost always determines your altitude in life’ meant to suggest?

2 What is the writer’s intention when he says ‘your heart beats a little bit faster’ and ‘Wow, your pulse is really racing now’?

3 Explain the phrase ‘cajoled with uplifting aphorisms’.

4 What does the writer mean when he says that Sensors are ‘undeniably in the ascendant’?

5 Explain what the poster of the kitten told people to do.

6 What does the writer mean by ‘a pep talk’?

7 What does the writer mean by ‘the brainwave of some whizzkid in personnel’?

8 What does the writer imply about the caption on the poster of a crew rowing?

9 What is the poster of rowers produced by Successories Hurt Employees meant to represent?

10 Explain what Conference Board’s report says about motivational posters.

11 What does the writer mean by ‘Quite so’?

12 What does the writer mean by ‘averse to’ in this context?

13 What does the writer mean by the expression ‘the sting in this tale’?

14 Explain the phrase ‘the elixir of life lies in cute banality’.

15 In a paragraph of 60–80 words, summarise the points made in the text both for and against the ways used by management to motivate staff.

Sample Answers

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