Motivating Workers: You Can Learn a Lot From 18th Century Sailors

Have you ever seen a nautical movie and dreamed of living a sailor’s life? We dream that silly dream because we don’t really understand how hard their job really was.

No matter how cold and wet you were (very and always), you still had to do the back-breaking work – and on a terrible diet, too!

Imagine working 100 feet up a telephone pole during a hurricane, except the pole is attached to a skateboard and your job is to tie ropes together. No gloves, no shoes, and a wet, cold rope. And all you had to eat that day was bread that required soaking in water just to make it digestible.

You did this every day for two years. Your home when you weren’t working (a mere eight hours per day) was a dark, moldy corner at the bottom of the ship. Oh, and when you wore through your clothes? You made your new ones from ruined sails, or a roll of fabric you brought on board when you left Boston the year before.

Unsurprisingly, the whip didn’t motivate

Surprisingly, sailors usually went about their work with pep in their step.

If it was possible to get a crew to want to work under these conditions, how hard can it be to get Cindy from accounting to stop annoying everyone and just do her job?

Of course they used the stick a lot back then – a whip in fact. And it was perfectly legal. The ship’s captain had authority like no other boss, but surprisingly, the stick was an ineffective motivator.

A crew that felt harm done could retaliate by working at a ‘normal’ speed. (they were just as petty in the 18th century as we are today, after all). If you’ve ever “showed them” by doing an absurdly thorough job to make a 10 minute task take three hours, you know what I’m talking about.

Or, the crew could also really embarrass their captain by being methodical when docking (a job that requires split-second timing) and cause the ship to smack into the dock or another boat. And the captain couldn’t punish someone for doing his job thoroughly, now could he?

Sailors found singing builds camaraderie

All this in mind, the first officer (who was really the chief motivation officer) needed to find better ways to pep up his crew. One way was singing.

Recent studies have shown that singing works — Marching To The Beat Of The Same Drummer Improves Teamwork, (Association for Psychological Science, Jan. 28, 2009) and Is There a Dark Side to Moving in Sync? (Science Daily, USC Marshall School of Business, Jan. 11, 2012) — and so does marching and chanting.

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While hauling up an anchor chain, for instance, a song was worth two men. The rhythm of the tune and camaraderie it encouraged got everyone to work in unison – and nothing lightens a load like cooperation, something no whip can force.

To apply this principle today, your office doesn’t have to sound like a pirate bar on a Friday night. Any type of cooperative task works, even if it’s taking a walk or doing a community crossword puzzle. According to studies, the team bond forged during these tasks remains when the employees go back to their desks.

Getting your crew to at “with a will”

Sailors have an expression: when they wanted to do something quickly, they did it “with a will.”

The role of a leader is to get his crew to act “with a will,” and if it takes a song, sing. Eat together, or sit around and just talk – almost anything works as long as it’s fun and requires participation.

As the leader of a team, it’s up to you to get that team working in unison, and you can use proven psychology to your advantage. If you aren’t in charge yet, use this technique to become the de facto team leader and soon the title will follow.

Unfortunately, you can’t beat your employees anymore, so you need to get them to sing instead and they will want to pull “with a will.”

David Sneed is the owner of Colorado-based Alpine Fence Company and author of Everyone Has A Boss – A Two Hour Guide to Being the Most Valuable Employee at Any Company. As a Marine, father, husband, entrepreneur, author, and teacher, David has learned how to help others succeed. He teaches the personal benefits of a strong work ethic to entry-level employees. Contact him at


3 Comments on “Motivating Workers: You Can Learn a Lot From 18th Century Sailors

  1. Thank you for such a nice synergy David. As you said, times change. And what used to work before such as “whips” no longer does. This drives us back to think of the traditional motivational approaches used by employers and managers, such as the stick and carrot approach. This approach which used to work in the 20th century doesn’t any longer, and you see lots of studies promoting alternative measures such as praise and recognition (you can check out this article here or any other approaches which promote employee satisfaction (Daniel’s Pink approach listed here
    Are you a job seeker, employee, manager, or HR fanatic? check out for info and tips.
    LebHR – The Lebanese Human Resources Community

    1. The links are not showing correctly due to ), here they are fixed:

      Employee Motivation: Praise and Recognition

      Motivating Employees in 2012, a New Perception

      Thank you!
      Are you a job seeker, employee, manager, or HR fanatic? check out for info and tips.
      LebHR – The Lebanese Human Resources Community

  2. Great message, David.  Albert Einstein apparently agreed with you as he said, “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.” Thank you for saying it in pirates speak.  🙂

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