Stop treating staff like rats in a maze

The idea that people are motivated by being happy is outdated, according to modern psychology



The idea that people are only or principally motivated by money was exploded in a recent TED Talk by Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University. Using the example of mountaineering, Ariely insisted that it’s ‘incredibly simplistic’ to think people are only motivated by being happy. “There’s all kinds of other things that motivate us to work, or behave in all kinds of ways,” Ariely explained, before outlining a couple of pertinent studies.

In one, participants were asked to assemble Lego Bionicles for payments that decreased by 30c each time, beginning with $3.00. In one condition, the Bionicles were stored under the table and disassembled at the end; in the other, they were disassembled in front of the participants as they began work on the second. “There’s something about this cyclical version of doing something over and over and over that seems to be particularly demotivating,” Ariely said.

In fact, people in the ‘meaningful’ condition built 11 Bionicles compared with those in the ‘Sisyphic’ condition who built seven. Interestingly, those who loved Lego were more likely to continue building Bionicles in the first condition, but the correlation between liking Lego and building more Bionicles was zero in the Sisyphic condition. “With this manipulation of breaking things in front of people’s eyes, we basically crushed any joy that they could get out of this activity,” Ariely explained.

In another experiment that Ariely worked on, participants received pieces of paper with randomly typed letters among which they were to find adjacent, identical pairs. Payments decreased each time as in the first study. In one condition, participants wrote their names on their work and it was looked over by an experimenter who said ‘Uh-huh’ before placing it in a pile. In another, the participants did not put their name on it and the experimenters merely took a glance before placing it in a pile and in a third, the experimenters immediately shredded their work.

When their output was acknowledged, even by a simple ‘Uh-huh,’ participants continued to work until payments of 15c, while those whose work was shredded only worked until 30c. Those whose work was ignored displayed similar (un)willingness. “The bad news is that ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort in front of their eyes … the good news is that by simply looking at something that somebody has done, scanning it and saying, ‘Uh-huh,’ that seems to be quite sufficient to dramatically improve people’s motivations,” Ariely said.

In the contemporary, knowledge economy, Ariely concluded, the meaning of work trumps efficiency. “When we think about labour, we usually think about motivation and payment as the same thing, but the reality is that you should probably add all kinds of things to it: meaning, creation, challenges, ownership, identity, pride,” he said.

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