Fool-Proof Motivation

Fool-Proof Motivation


If you think people do good work based on how much money you give them, you’re in for a surprise. But if you think making the office a place of butterflies, joy and rainbows will do the trick, you’re in for another surprise.

Experiments by Dan Ariely, behavioural economist, show that humans get up to all kinds of strange behaviour and that there are other things that motivate us to work; you just have to know how to work them. Check out these experiments.

Lego fruits of labour

Ariely gave experiment participants a pile of Lego and an instruction guide to build a robot. He’d pay them $3 for the task. The completed robot was then hidden under a table, and they were asked to build the same robot again for $2,70. This repeat assemble/price reduction continued until some reached the ‘meaningful condition’: “No more. It’s not worth it for me.”

For the next group, the cyclical task was made more demotivating: The Lego robot was built with the same cash rewards offered but, instead of hiding it away, the experimenters disassembled the robot in front of the participant.

The result? Hidden robot participants repeated the cycle 11 times, while disassembled robot participants only completed seven. And it’s not because some participants love Lego and therefore get more joy out of the activity than others. The act of breaking the Lego took the meaning out of the activity.

Switching Lego for paper-pushing

In a revised experiment, Ariely asked participants to find matching pairs of letters on a sheet of paper. The price was 30c per sheet, and it reduced with each repetition of the cycle. But this time there were three conditions.


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Group one wrote their name, completed the task and showed it to the experimenter who scanned the page, said “uh huh” and put it in a pile next to them. Group two didn’t write their name, gave it to the experimenter who simply put it to one side. For the third group, the experimenter was handed the paper and put it straight into a shredder.

Related: Fool Yourself Into Becoming a Morning Person

Taking it to big business

So what, it’s Lego and paper. What happens in business when you have to cancel mergers or presentations that staff have been working their butts off for? Ariely consulted a big software company in Seattle where 200 engineers had just been unapologetically told by the CEO that their big project was cancelled.

They’d effectively been through the same experiment, except now they started arriving at work later, leaving earlier, and had started abusing company expenses. While projects can fail, acknowledging effort is critical to keeping staff motivated.

Stats don’t lie

The graph shows that when the work was acknowledged, people worked all the way down to 15c for their efforts. Interestingly, the shredded group gave up very quickly, even though no one was checking and they could get paid for doing very little.

Then the ignored group. Turns out ignoring effort is very similar to shredding. The good news is that just by looking at something, scanning and saying “uh huh” was enough to dramatically improve motivation.

Related: We Give You the Secret To Your Productivity

Ponder this: Big thinkers square up

If experiments aren’t enough to convince you that acknowledging effort is paramount to motivating staff, take notes from a big thinker showdown: Moral philosopher Adam Smith versus father of socialism Karl Marx.

Adam-Smith_Self-Development_Personal-ImprovementAdam Smith

Using the example of a pin factory, and a pin taking 12 steps for completion, Smith suggested the following about efficiency. If one person completed all 12 steps, production would be low but if 12 people completed one step each, productivity would increase – it’s the foundation of the Industrial Revolution. Marx on the other hand was against alienation of labour, believing a connection to your work made you care about it more.

While Smith was correct and relevant for the Industrial Revolution, in today’s knowledge-based economy where people have to decide for themselves how much effort, attention, caring and connection to the work they feel, Marx now has a lot more things to say.

Karl-Marx_Self-Development_Personal-ImprovementKarl Marx

In short

Payment and motivation are not the same thing. Having meaning, creativity, challenges, ownership, identity and pride connected to the task at hand is as important as money. As a business leader, if you add these components to management and integrate them into business culture, employees won’t only be happier, they’ll be more productive.

Tracy Lee Nicol
Tracy-Lee Nicol is an experienced business writer and magazine editor. She was awarded a Masters degree with distinction from Rhodes university in 2010, and in the time since has honed her business acumen and writing skills profiling some of South Africa's most successful entrepreneurs, CEOs, franchisees and franchisors.Find her on Google+.