Why do so many workplace and workforce 'improvements' backfire? Why do our people always seem like they're on the brink of revolt, distracted and anxious?

In the technology-driven age of lean and agile, it's humbling for management to admit that we too often fail to optimize the human element in work. We know that our teams will make or break a business, but we still struggle to truly engage them.

I recently had a fascinating conversation with my friend Dan Ariely about what really motivates teams...and how often we miss the mark. Because I'm a huge nerd for economics and behavioral psychology, I sent a cold email to Dan about three years ago, asking him a few questions, and we have been in touch since.

Dan is Duke University's world-renowned psychology and behavioral economics professor, and also the bestselling author of books like Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality. He's given popular TED talks on decision making, morals, and human motivation.

He recently published another book that takes a deeper look at what motivates us, and anyone leading a team will be surprised by the insights.

Evolving the Concept of Motivation

Usually, when we think about motivation, the first thing we think about is money. The classic assumption is that harder and better work can be motivated by simply offering employees more money.

But this assumes that people are only motivated by having more money to spend on luxury and comfort.

What Dan's research has uncovered is that people can be even more strongly motivated by achievement than pleasure. Things that are difficult, complex, challenging, and sometimes painful--like running a marathon--are actually what gives us the most satisfaction and best motivation. Dan comments:

"If an alien came down to earth and saw people running a marathon, they would wonder what crime they committed and who are the cruel people punishing them this way. After all, there are no signs of happiness; only pain and misery. Nevertheless, people who run marathons do so by choice and find them incredibly important and meaningful in their lives, suggesting that we don't derive pleasure from just simple things, but those that are complex, challenging, and difficult."

What We Can Learn from the Misery of Doctors

While doctors are some of the most highly paid professionals with one of the most critical jobs, many doctors are actually unhappy. Dan did some interesting research for the Mayo Clinic to analyze the problem of doctor burnout. Multiple metrics show physicians reporting decreasing levels of happiness on a yearly basis. This not only leads to higher turnover rates, but as many as 400 physicians even commit suicide every year.

Dan makes a compelling case that the reason doctors no longer like what they do is because of a loss of autonomy and a lack of cognitive engagement. In laymen's terms, the most dynamic part of medicine - saving lives and helping people - has been taken over by a bureaucratic hell of paperwork and protocols.

Dan says, "We've turned doctors into machines in the name of efficiency, taking away their most meaningful motivation."

Why the Cubicle Experiment Backfired

Physicians are not the only people being demotivated by corporate and bureaucratic pushes for efficiency. In our conversation, Dan mentioned an unexpected finding from a recent consulting engagement he had with a company. While visiting their offices, management was enthusiastically boasting about a special seating arrangement they had created with their cubicles.

Management had hoped that removing the ownership of cubicles would motivate employees to come to work early in order to get their favorite workspaces, but the consequences were actually the opposite as intended. While the company perceived this change as innovative and ambitious, Dan uncovered the silent problem it was creating with their employees.

By embracing efficiency above all, management had made everyone feel like a temporary and replaceable worker. The lack of stability and consistency from sitting at a new desk daily made every moment in the office feel like both their first day and their last day. The company's lack of effort to create a sense of permanence with its employees left them feeling expendable, and resulted in less work and high turnover.

How to Send Employees the Right Signals to Show You Care

The consequences of the cubicle experiment illustrates a core component of what motivates people at work. We are more inclined to deliver our best performance when we feel like our boss or employer actually cares about our success and well-being.

Negative signaling from employers, or even the absence of signaling that they do care about employees, is detrimental to employees' motivation and work quality. So how can you convey this in your policies and practices?

While rewarding top performers might work well for things like sales, not going out of your way for everyone at your company can have a detrimental result on overall productivity and motivation. Similar to dating, Dan says that anything you can do to create a sense of a long-term relationship, like adding benefits such as health care and 401ks, work well. These kinds of benefits show employees that you care about their well-being, while also signaling that you're in it for the long-run.

These signals show that the company believes in a person's value and potential. Rather than making doctors feel like clerks or cubicle dwellers feel like lab rats, you should try to make each member of your team feel like an essential component of your organization. That takes self-awareness on your part, but it's a worthwhile exercise if it has a direct impact on your team's effort

Dan's research is already disrupting a number of stale management practices for organizations, ranging from small startups dealing with gifting, food, and financial decision making to some of the largest US corporations. What really sets Dan apart from other workplace futurists is that he is not glorifying new technologies or innovative strategies as an end-all solution. He is simply stressing a respect for the complexity and dignity of the people who work for you. It's as obvious as it is radical.

If you are interested to learn more about Dan Ariely's insights and analysis, check out his new book, Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations available from Dan's website or on Amazon.

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Published on: Nov 30, 2016
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