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The Key to Employee Motivation?

There is a fascinating and frequently amusing talk on Ted by Dan Ariely exploring what makes people feel good about their jobs.

We all know that some people have a 'calling' to their career, even if it is not well-paid. However there is a widespread assumption that most people are motivated primarily by money.

Is this true? Is paying people well all you need to do, or is money less important than something else?

Added on 03.08.2016

Hobbies are often very hard work

When you look at the hobbies that many people pursue they are often full of self-inflicted hardship. Mountain climbing is an admittedly extreme example, where the accounts given of ascents are full of misery like frostbite and loss of fingers and toes, problems walking or even breathing. And yet, having reached the summit and descended, the climber will recover and then put themselves through it all over again.

If you work out in your spare time then then you will know that keeping fit demands hard work on a regular basis, and that part of the satisfaction of enjoying a good standard of physical fitness is the pride you take in your efforts to maintain it.

Dan recalls that he was spurred to investigate motivation when a former student working in the banking sector came to see him and recounted how deeply unhappy he was when a presentation exploring a possible merger (one that he had spent two weeks of late nights working on) was cancelled the day it was due to be delivered. What was upsetting was not the amount of effort put into the presentation, but the fact that it would never be seen by anyone, not even the person who had commissioned it.

An experiment to test financial incentive vs demotivation

Dan and his colleagues created an experiment to test motivation by asking two groups of people to build a creature from a Lego kit, and offering them a small financial incentive each time. Both groups were told that their assembled Lego creatures would be taken to bits at the end of the experiment, but the first group did not see this happen (their Lego creature was put out of sight) whereas the second group had their creature taken to bits in front of them. Each person in both groups was offered a three dollar fee to build their first creature, then 30 cents was deducted from this fee each time, until they refused to build any more creatures.

The outcome was interesting: people in the first group built up eleven creatures (in other words, some of them built the final one for nothing), but no-one in the second group built more than seven. As Dan says, this was something as trivial as assembling a toy, yet even the slight recognition offered was enough to keep people engaged. 

Dan and his colleagues also conducted a variation on this experiment where they asked people to guess what would happen, and found that nearly everyone correctly predicted that the first group would build more creatures.

An experiment to test demotivation vs indifference

A second experiment was run in which people were given sheets of paper with jumbled letters on them and asked to find pairs. As before, there was a financial incentive to finish each sheet which was reduced with each subsequent task, but here there were three groups:

  • group one were told to write their name on the paper, and the experimenter would check their sheet and acknowledge the work (simply saying "uh-huh") before placing it on the desk, with subsequent sheets added to the pile;
  • group two were not told to write their name on the paper, and their work was not looked at or acknowledged before being placed on the table;
  • group three had their work shredded in front of them with no recognition.

As you might expect, those that had their work shredded turned down further work far sooner than those that had their work acknowledged, but what might surprise you is that those whose work was not shredded but also not acknowledged (group two) gave up almost as soon.

Demotivation: a real world example

To show that this has real world application, Dan relates that soon after the first experiment he was giving a talk to a software company that had put 200 of its engineers in a new building and asked them to create 'the next big product' for the company. After two years the CEO cancelled the project. Following this, these engineers had severe morale problems resulting in poor timekeeping and fewer hours worked. They were all significantly demotivated. 

When the engineers were asked what they would have liked to happen, the most common answers were 'let us try to see if anything we made could be re-used elsewhere for the company', 'let us build a prototype' and even just 'let us present about what we did for two years'. Note that all of these require additional work from these engineers, which they are happy to do - they key is the validation of their hard work.

It doesn't take much to make people feel unappreciated, but it also only takes a small effort to make them feel that their efforts are valued.

Positive motivation

Having focused mainly on negative motivation, Dan then turned his thoughts to positive motivation. An IKEA customer, he realised that whilst he didn't exactly enjoy putting together the furniture he'd bought, he found he valued it more than his other furniture.

Then he was reminded of the consumer testing done when cake mix was introduced in the 1940s. Originally, cake mix was a powder to which only water needed to be added before baking the cake, but it sold very poorly. It turned out that this was because people didn't distinguish between mixing powder and water and simply buying a finished cake. The manufacturers had to make it a little harder (replacing powdered eggs and powdered milk as part of the mix with the requirement to break eggs into the mix and also measure in both milk and water) for the product to take off.

Establishing a connection to work

So Dan's next experiment involved two groups of people who were both asked to evaluate pieces of origami. Group one were shown a photo of a perfectly finished piece made by an expert and then followed instructions to attempt to make their own version. They were then told that they would have to buy their work to keep it. Group two were only asked whether they wanted to buy pieces of origami made by group one. Group one were prepared to pay five times as much for their own creations (even though they were not very good), and they also thought that group two would value the pieces of origami far more than they actually did. 

Dan next got rid of the instructions, which resulted in even less impressive origami. Whilst this was valued lower by those that had not worked on it, the uglier origami was valued even more by its makers because of the extra effort involved.

It's important to understand that the fundamental concept in motivation is not so much the amount of work involved as it is the connection to the result of that work.

It's the connection that is important for people, and this can be demonstrated if we look at history. It was in the industrial revolution and the advent of mass production that the idea of division of labour came into being. It was found that if you split the production of an item into different steps and get different workers to do each step - and only that step - that you can increase production.

However by removing the concept of 'ownership' of the finished product you risk reducing your staff to little more than demoralised automatons. in the industrial revolution that was not of much concern of the factory owners, but it should be very much on the mind of managers today looking to understand what motivates and demotivates staff in an information economy.

As Dan says, when we think about workers, we could fall into the trap of regarding motivation and financial reward as the same thing. However we should think hard about words like 'meaning', 'creation', 'challenge', 'ownership', 'identity' and 'pride' when looking for ways to motivate people to happily give more of themselves in the workplace and come to work motivated and enthusiastic.

Watch Dan's full presentation here.