Feeling motivated at work feels good, and it’s good for business. But employees and managers don’t always see eye-to-eye on this very important topic, as behavioral economist Dan Ariely explains. Managers too often associate motivation with efficiency — since their goal is typically to run the company more efficiently — and try to achieve efficiency by automating workflow and prioritizing short-term goals. Those efforts, however, tend to demotivate employees. Managers should encourage workers to use their creative energies, rather than be automatons, and help them set long term goals, which according to Ariely are the real key to motivation and satisfaction.
Ariely’s newest book is Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations.
Dan Ariely: So the reality is that businesses are complex. People do lots of things. We need to change lots of things all the time. And everybody is stressed for time. So we start treating things a bit more mechanical. People are automatons and they are producing some gadgets or they’re making some output. And part of it is lack of time, part of it is lack of attention. But there’s a consequence I think we’re really killing the motivation that the people have. I think that this idea that we need to from the company to employees say thank you more frequently. Saying we’ve seen your effort, here’s what you contributed to. Here is your name connected to it is important. The other things we don’t spend enough time on is the commitment of the team members to each other. Again we had this functional view. We’re paying for your time. Come here but we don’t really get people’s minds and souls and so on. And one way to do it is to get the team members. I was in California not too long ago and I was visiting a startup and I asked them how often do they stay after midnight working. And they said quite often and they told me that the night before they stayed until they said after midnight. I said how did it work out? And they said that one of the team members was late on something and she was going to stay until late. And the other team members decided out of camaraderie to stay with her.
And one of the guys said he called his wife and said sorry, I’m going to stay until late. They have two little kids. And he said I have to help Maria finish this. And he said if it was for his project his wife would have been pissed off with him. But because he was helping somebody else it was actually a good thing, right. Now think about what it means. We have this notion of social utility. The fact that we care about the other people around us sometimes more than we care about ourselves is an incredibly important element. And that is about true team spirit where people deeply care about each other and they’re willing to do sacrifices to help other people that they might not do for themselves. And maybe the last thing but the most important one is to understand that as we move more and more to the knowledge economy life and effort and motivation is about goodwill. You know if you worked for me and you did something incredibly basic maybe I don’t care about your goodwill. But as we move to the knowledge economy you can modulate your efforts and attention and care to such a degree that the question is how do I get goodwill. So you can get somebody to sit there and code but how do you get them to truly care, to truly think about the problem. To truly try out, to try and learn something. To basically maybe slow themselves down now because they’re going to learn something later that would help them. To collaborate with other people. How do you get people to really care, to truly have goodwill? And lots of the things that we’re doing are not in the range of creating goodwill. They are in the range of creating efficiency. And efficiency in the short term, not even in the long term. And in the name of short term efficiency I think we’re often killing goodwill. So I would like to see a process in which people ask themselves to what extent are these cubicles. To what extent is our lunch and coffee and incentives and 360 evaluation. Whatever it is. To what extent are those thinking about compliance and rules and making sure that nobody’s running stray. And to what extent are they about getting goodwill out of people. Getting a long term commitment.
The same things that apply to motivating other people also apply about motivating ourselves. So you could have a life in which you basically are consumed by email and you say to yourself my task, my joy in life is getting to inbox zero. Like we even have a term for this as if this is a goal of life. Like imagine somebody on their deathbed say oh I’ve arrived at inbox zero, almost a thousand days throughout my life. And it’s very easy, in the literature there’s a term for this. It’s called structured procrastination where you basically do lots of little things that give you the sense that you’re making progress without actually making the progress. And it’s very easy to get ourselves to do lots of little tasks that gives us momentary slightly – oh, I erased another email. Oh, I responded to another email and so on without thinking long term. And long term thinking is really what causes real joy. And it’s not easy, right. It’s not easy. I get about 300 emails a day. I wake up, I open my laptop. It’s always a moment of like slight depression. Oh, my goodness. I have to deal with all this. And I could spend my whole day doing email. And email here is an analogy, right. It’s an analogy for all the things that you have to do but they’re not giving you a true sense of accomplishment.
And the real challenge and it’s not easy is to carve time to do the things that you would say at the end of three months, six months, a year and so on will give me a sense that I’m actually contributing, doing something useful . So personally I do this with writing, right. It’s very easy to spend a whole day responding to email. I try to protect some time and say I’m going to write. I’m going to actually stop. I’m going to think. It will take me a while. Sometimes I’ll write something and I say the whole time was useless. I didn’t really progress enough. But from time to time there is progress and over time it creates a body of knowledge that you say this is actually a very useful thing to do. So I think managers for themselves need to think about the three months, six months, nine months, one year, five year and so on goals and make sure they protect some time to make progress toward those things because nobody else will protect their time for them.