A young man in a bank burns the midnight oil for more than two weeks, making detailed financial spreadsheets for a M&A deal that his boss had asked him to work on. He spends long hours, completes a detailed presentation and then sends it to the boss the day before it was due.

The boss writes back “Nice presentation, but the merger is cancelled.”

How would you feel if you were the young man?

In my previous post I had written a bit about the employee engagement mindset. The ability to motivate your team, is the cornerstone of that approach. Think about it – when you walk into the offices of some companies, the place is buzzing with excitement. There is an energy in the air. People are talking, smiling, phones are ringing, their faces alive, their body language exuding confidence. And then there are some places, where you walk in and people are slumped over their work spaces, trying very hard to get through the day. Chances are they have a boss who walks out his corner cabin every now and then and barks orders to execute the latest brainwave he has had. There is no direction, no participation from the team, no “mojo” – just a floor full of people working away at things that they know, might never see the light of day. Chances are the quality of work they are churning out isn’t too great either. Why? Because their ‘heart is not in it’. Not a great place to work now, is it?

The video above is a talk that celebrated author and behavioral economist Dan Ariely gave at TED. (The example of the young man is taken from his talk.)

Talking about bosses who issue diktat’s, Dan’s talk has another interesting, if rather depressing, example as well. He talks about a large technology company in Seattle that had set aside 200 engineers in a separate building to work on ‘the next thing’. Sounds familiar? Yeah, most companies will have such teams or at least a bunch of people – squirreled away in a corner with sexy project names. Anyway coming back, these brilliant engineers hacked away at code, brainstormed, researched and were fully invested in building the next big thing for the company. One fine day the CEO went to the group and canceled the project. No consultations, no participation – just a cancellation  As you can imagine, when Dan met them a week later, he ran into some of the most depressed engineers he had ever seen. They took him out to dinner to vent their frustration and showed him some of the innovative things they could do with their expense reports.

So how can you be a better leader than the manager of the young man in the bank and the CEO of the Seattle technology company?

The following are the three key insights from Dan’s talk , on why people stay motivated. As a leader knowing and acting on these can enable you to create an environment of excellence in your organization.

1. Seeing the results of one’s hard work makes people more productive:

When people put in their hard work to create something, they like to see results. Badly planned projects, constantly changing requirements, abrupt cancellations all add to the frustration of the workforce and eventually they will lose faith in the leadership and move on to better places.

Dan quotes an example from Greek mythology to underscore this point. Sisyphus, was a king of Ephyra in ancient Greece much maligned for his chronic deceitfulness. The Gods finally lost patience with him and compelled him to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down just when he is near the peak and he has to do this action forever. As you can imagine, Sisyphus wouldn’t be motivated for too long to keep pushing up that boulder. Neither will your team members when you keep changing their roles at the drop of a hat.

2. The less appreciated people feel for the work they are doing, the more money they want to do it.

In his talk Ariely describes an experiment where a sheet of paper was filled with random letters and they were asked to find identical ones and get paid for their work. For each subsequent round they were offered less money to do the same work. There were three groups.

In the first group, people wrote their names on the sheets and handed it over to the experimenter who glanced at the sheet, muttered “Uh Huh” and then put the sheet on a pile in front of him.

In the second group, people didn’t write their names and the experimenter put the sheet on a pile without even looking at it.

In the third group, the work was simply shredded in front the person submitting the sheet.

The result? People in the third group needed almost twice as much money as the first to keep working. And people in the second group who work was not destroyed but were ignored, needed almost as much money as the third group.

Conclusion: Ignoring people is not a very good idea. The impact of ignoring your team’s work is almost as bad as destroying it. While motivating people is not very difficult, eliminating motivation however is too easy. You might be doing it all the time, but simply doing nothing at all.

3. The more difficult a task is, the more proud people feel at completing it.

In another experiment  Ariely made two groups out of people, all of whom were Origami novices. To the first, he provided instructions on how to make a particular form. To the other the instructions were not provided.

In both cases the ones who built the product and a bunch of people who just evaluated the end product were asked how much they would pay for it.

In the first case, where the instructions were provided, the ones who built it were willing to pay as much as 5 times more than the ones who just evaluated it. The kicker came in the second set, where the end results were much uglier (since no instructions were provided). The gap in the willingness to pay was far higher than the first set.

Conclusion: The value people place on the work they do is affected by the effort put in. And they also tend to assume that others will place the same value on it when that is usually not the case.

As a good leader you can easily use these insights to better motivate your team and increase their productivity. Remember the only thing that stands between an energetic productive team and a Sisyphic culture is you. And sometimes all it takes, is a bit of sincere appreciation and involvement.

5 thoughts on “Motivation at work: 3 fascinating insights

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