How astonishingly easy it is to ruin motivation

Katharina Stickling.

Recently, during a coaching session with a client I found myself listening to a lot of disappointment and despair. I heard about a project the person was heavily involved in and finally took charge of, how they successfully improved efficiency and thus output only for them to hear half way through the process that they were no longer in charge and would be repositioned. 

I could see the pain in their face. The enthusiasm they demonstrated when explaining to me the solutions they found for the problems presented to them, and the pride they felt about these leading to success, spoke of nothing but their passion and motivation for the cause. Yet, I now had a discouraged client sitting in front of me with the brief from their manager that they lacked motivation and engagement. 

It is not the first time I have witnessed people losing their motivation in the blink of an eye. Another client had a dispute with a colleague and was made solely responsible for the situation. Yet another client had worked evenings and weekends to ensure a project would reach completion, but three months into the project it got dropped without much of an explanation. The outcome in situations like this is more often than not disbelief and even cynicism leading to a loss of motivation, disengagement, lack of participation, a change in behaviour and communication, or issues with colleagues and leaders.  If the issues aren’t resolved, it can result in the person leaving the organisation.

What’s happening here is simple. The work and effort put in was made meaningless. Reading this might seem like a stretch to some; nonetheless, purpose and meaning matter a lot more than they are often assumed to by management and leaders. There is more to work than financial incentives, more than leaving with a paycheck at the end of the week.

In an experiment led by Emir Kamenica [1] , Drazen Prelec [2] and Dan Ariely [3] the team of scholars divided test participants into two groups – the “meaningful” condition and the “Sisyphic” condition, named after the ancient Greek story of Sisyphus who the gods condemned to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again. 

People in both test groups were offered $2 for building a small Lego construction. Once they had completed their first Lego Bionicle, participants were asked if they were willing to build another one for $1.89 this time; this process continued. The difference between the test groups was that in the Sisyphic condition the Bionicle was disassembled right after completion and in front of the test participant’s eyes. In the meaningful group on the other hand, it was put into a box and participants were told it was to be disassembled later. On average, people in the meaningful group completed around eleven Lego sets, whereas the average for the Sisyphic condition was seven, around four fewer than the meaningful group. 

And here is what is interesting: They further discovered that specifically for the Sisyphic group – the group with less meaning – the internal joy of building Lego was delinked from productivity. No matter how much participants had previously indicated their enjoyment of building Lego, those who were serious Lego fans built as few Bionicles as those who had lower building enjoyment. [4] 

This experiment demonstrates the need to acknowledge peoples’ investment of energy and time into a cause. For leaders it is a reminder to pay attention to what matters to your people. So:

  • Explain the reasons for your decision making – think big picture
  • Listen to what they express to be important to them
  • Ask and be curious about an acceptable outcome for employees
  • Where you can, offer an alternative that meets them halfway

[1] Emir Kamenica, Professor of Economics at University of Chicago

[2] Drazen Prelec, Professor of Management Science and Economics at MIT

[3] Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University

[4] Ariely, D. (2016). Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations. Simon & Schuster.

Harrowfield is a strategic learning agency. Working to a specific client brief, we draw on the disciplines of organisational and behavioural psychology – and common sense –  to determine and execute strategic and tactical programmes for personal development and team development. Through behaviour change, ideal business outcomes are achieved. 

Can you see a development opportunity or a behavioural frustration? We help business leaders to bring out the potential that they see in their people by shaping habits of thinking, communication and action in the workplace. Talk to us today.

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