Every job in the world has boring bits. That's true no matter how impressive the job title or exciting the industry. So as a manager, how do you best motivate your people to slog through the necessary but stultifying sections of their jobs?
Science can help, according to a recent Science of Us column. The post is a fun and useful writeup of recent research by University of California, Berkeley's Stefano DellaVigna and Devin Pope of the University of Chicago. For the study, the pair of economists contrived to torture 10,000 Amazon Turk workers with what might be the most boring and pointless task every conceived of by man -- continually pushing the 'a' and 'b' keys on a keyboard as quickly as possible for 10 minutes straight.
What intervention, if any, could keep these hardy study participants focused on this mind-numbing action? DellaVigna and Pope tested 18 interventions, utilizing competition, charity or various types of monetary rewards to spur study subjects. Here are the the main takeaways.
1. Just ask them to try.
People seem to appreciate simply being asked to give it their best. As Science of Us points out "this is a little bit weird. Why should some stranger running an Amazon Mechanical Turk task asking you to try hard motivate you?" But simply being encouraged to try hard actually did impact workers' performance.
OK, the impact wasn't huge compared to monetary rewards, but this is by far the easiest idea to implement as a real world boss. Just acknowledging that the task is not the most fun and requesting your people to give it their best might yield benefits, this study suggests.
2. Charity beats competition.
As you'd probably expect, a bit of friendly competition also increased performance. Phrases like "We'll show you how well you did relative to others" and "Many participants scored more than 2,000″ sped up participants' pointless keyboard whacking slightly more than a just urging them to try.
Even more effective than pitting workers against each other, however, was linking their performance to a charitable contribution. Just bear in mind if you decide to go this route that the numbers didn't matter as much -- performance went up by about the same amount whether the Red Cross was getting one cent for every 100 keystrokes or ten. I'm not saying you should be stingy in your charitable contributions, of course, only that workers are less sensitive to specific numbers.
3. Frame financial rewards as large chunks.
Rationally, it makes no difference if you get a penny for every additional keystroke or a dollar for every 100, but how the economists framed financial rewards had a significant impact in this real-world experiment.
"Rewards framed as large chunks are easier to parse and make more of a cognitive impact than smaller, incremental ones," explains the post. So if you're going to offer a financial carrot, put some thought into exactly how you frame the program, aiming to offer (relatively) larger sums for specific targets.