What Motivates your Team?

January 17, 2017



Over the Christmas holiday, Jenn and I loved visiting part of our amazing family over in Kushiro, Japan. I also finished Dan Ariely’s book, PAYOFF; The Hidden Logic that Shapes our Motivation.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: I love when science proves what you and I have known and experienced for many years!

As I head into 2017, Ariely’s experiment is an awesome reminder to me that our mindsets can become tainted, and our philosophy (what I call belief system and mindset that together control our actions) needs updating or refreshing, from time to time.



Dan Ariely writes about a study in which he and his colleagues had their subjects print letters in random order on many sheets of paper. The participants were then asked to count how many times the same letters were positioned or grouped next to each other. When the participants finished the first sheet, they were told that they would be paid 55 cents and asked if they would like to do another sheet…this one for 5 cents less. Each subsequent sheet that they chose to do would be for less money.

The experimenters then created three separate groups of people working under three different conditions.

The Acknowledged Condition

In this condition, each participant wrote their name on the top of the sheet, found and counted all the instances where identical letters were grouped together, and then returned the page to the experimenter. The experimenter looked at the sheet carefully from top to bottom, said “Ah ha,” placed the sheet on the desk next to him, and asked, “Would they like to work on another sheet for 5 cents less or would they like to stop and get paid?”

The Ignored Condition

This time the participants did not write their names on the top of the page. When they handed in their sheets, the experimenter did not even look at their papers and said nothing to them. Placing the sheet upside down on the desk, the experimenter asked, “Would they like to do another sheet for 5 cents less, or would they like to stop and get paid?”

The Shredded Condition

In this condition, when the participants brought the experimenter the finished sheets, they were not acknowledged at all. The experimenter took the sheets and immediately inserted the papers into a large shredder and then asked, “Would they like to do another sheet for 5 cents less or would they like to stop and get paid?”

The Cheating Opportunity

At this point, perhaps you have already reasoned that the people in the Ignored Condition would have quickly figured out that if the experimenter was not going to look at the sheet, then the participant could make a bunch of money. In this condition the participant could keep bringing back the pages at any point, without having printed or counted any letters at all, because the experimenter wasn’t going to acknowledge or look at the sheets of paper.

The temptation to cheat should have been even higher for participants in the Shredded Condition. Why not get paid for doing nothing? We might assume that people would hand in many empty sheets to get as much money as possible. In both the Ignored Condition and the Shredded Condition, we might guess that participants would have chosen to work longer for less money . 

But did they?

Here is what the experiment found:

In the Acknowledged Condition participants stopped when the pay rate dropped to around 15 cents per page, indicating that doing more sheets at that point was not worth their time.

In contrast, participants in the Shredded Condition stopped working far earlier, when the pay rate was, on average, 29 cents per page. These results could suggest that when we are acknowledged for our work, we will work harder for less pay, and when we are not acknowledged we lose a bunch of our motivation.

How about the Ignored Condition? We might think that the results of this condition would fall somewhere between the Acknowledged Condition and the Shredded Condition.

In fact, participants who experienced the Ignored Condition stopped working when the pay rate was approximately 27.5 cents per page, only 1.5 cents less than participants whose work was shredded.

Dan Ariely’s experiment suggests that if we want to de-motivate people, then shredding their work is the way to go, but you can get almost all the way there by simply ignoring people’s efforts.

Ariely says, “Acknowledgement is almost a kind of human magic. It is a small human connection, a gift from one person to another that translates into a much larger, more meaningful outcome.” 

On the positive side, the study results demonstrate that we can increase motivation simply by acknowledging the efforts of the people working with us. Why is this easy task, for some, such an unused leadership principle?

PAYOFF explains that many Individuals still believe in the “exchanging work for wages” philosophy. The leaders with this philosophy think people don’t care what happens at work (whether they are inspired by their leaders or not), as long as they receive their “fair pay.”

What do you think?

Looking back at my hockey career, my favourite part of playing in the NHL was the 113 games that I played in the playoffs. Our team was 100% committed, our engagement was off the chart… and during this time we didn’t receive a paycheque! NHL paycheques rolled out over the regular season, from October through April. Yes, winning rounds in the playoffs delivered small bonuses, but they were nothing like our salaries during the regular season.

During the Stanley Cup Playoffs, we played for purpose, pride and a sense of team accomplishment, never for the playoff-payoff.

What MINDSET is influencing your actions in this area of “acknowledging past positives”?

What is your plan to up your game and increase the acknowledgement of your people and colleagues in 2017?

(Send me your ideas on how you will implement this information today.)

 Looking forward to adding value to your team in 2017!




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