Motivating People at Work

Today, I’d like to share with you why giving meaningful feedback about employee's work is tremendously important.

I’ll talk about factors that motivate people in their jobs. Many people believe employees only care about their salaries. They think employers need to give bonuses and raises and that paying extra money to employees will buy extra work. However, I want to discuss other factors that motivate people at work. I hope I can show you that there are factors that motivate people at least as much as their pay.

Before looking at the workplace, let’s consider what motivates people in the world around us. For example, think about mountain climbing. Do you think that books written by mountain climbers are full of moments of joy and happiness? No, they are full of difficult challenges. They talk about being cold and having difficulty walking and breathing. If people were just trying to be happy, the moment they got to the top, they would probably actually say, “This was a terrible mistake. I’ll never climb a mountain again.” However, after climbers recover from one climb, they almost always try another. People keep climbing because they care about not just reaching the end, the high point. It suggests that they care about overcoming a challenge and a very difficult goal motivates them to push themselves to do their best again and again.

Thinking about mountain climbing made me think about what motivates people at work. I came up with some ideas and created some experiments to test my theories on motivation in the workplace. In one experiment, I gave people Legos and asked them to build an action figure. This experiment had two forms. In the first one, I asked people, “Would you like to build a Lego action figure for three dollars?” Most people said yes and built the action figure from its set. When they finished, I took it and put it on a shelf. After that, I said, “Would you like to build another one, this time for $2.70?” If they said yes, I let them build another one. When they finished, I put their figure on a shelf and asked them again, “Do you want to build another one?” this time for $2.40, after that for $2.10, and so on, until at some point people said, “It’s not worth it for me.” To summarize, people built an action figure with Legos, I took it and put it on a shelf, and then I asked them if they wanted to build another one for less money. Eventually, they would decide not to because it was no longer worth it to them.

Next, I tried a second augmented form of this experiment. In this experiment, I asked people, “Would you like to build one action figure for three dollars?” If they said yes, they built it. Then I took the action figure apart in front of their eyes. After that, I asked, “Do you want to build another one for $2.70?” If they said yes, I gave them the pieces for a new one. When they finished it, I took it apart in front of them, and then again asked, “Would you like to build another one, this time for 30 cents less?” If they said yes, I gave the pieces for the next one, and so on until they decided not to. People usually built about seven action figures in the first form of the experiment but only three in the second. I want to point out that neither form of the experiment was a very meaningful project. People were not curing cancer or building bridges. They were building action figures for a few dollars. There was not an opportunity for significant meaning or even small meaning; however, having one’s action figures put on a shelf made a big difference in how many action figures people decided to build.

Now I want to describe a second experiment type that I conducted. In this experiment, I took a sheet of paper with random letters and asked people to find pairs of letters that were next to each other again for a small amount of money. So, people had to find all the pairs of letters that were next to each other. After people did the first sheet, I asked if they wanted to do another sheet for a little less money, the next sheet for a little bit less still, and so on like in the earlier experiment. Also, as in the earlier experiment, there were different forms of the experiment, but this time three variations. In the first form, people had to write their names on the paper. After they found the pairs of letters, they gave it to me. I would look at it from top to bottom, put it on the corner of my desk, and say, “Thank You”. In the second form, people were told not to write their names on the paper. When I was given the sheet of paper, I did not look at it. Instead, I just put it on my desk. The third form was like the second in that people did not write their names on the paper, but there was one difference: Rather than put the paper on my desk, I threw it directly into the trash. Imagine people’s surprise when their work was literally thrown away!

What about the results? People in the first form of the experiment worked for much longer. In the first form, people checked on average eight sheets, but in the third form, they only checked three. What do you think happened in the second form of the experiment? Surprisingly, there was no difference between the second and third forms of the experiment. In both these forms of the experiment, people only found pairs of letters on three papers. This is very similar to the result of the first experiment when the experimenter destroyed people’s action figures. These results show that if you don’t give any importance to people’s efforts, they are not satisfied with what they’re doing. I want to add that in the second experiment, people could have cheated. They could have done poor quality work in the second and third forms of the experiment because they realized I was not inspecting their work. Although they could have done more sheets very quickly and got more money with much less effort, that is not what they chose to do.

So, what does this mean for managers? There’s good news and bad news here for managers. The bad news is that ignoring the performance of people is as bad as throwing out their effort in front of their eyes. On the other hand, the good news is that simply taking a look at something that somebody has done and saying “Thank you” seems to be sufficient to dramatically improve people’s motivation. Although adding motivation doesn’t seem to be very difficult, if managers fail to find simple ways to motivate people, they may completely, in fact, completely demotivate employees.

To sum up, when thinking about how to motivate employees, companies shouldn’t simply think about money. Managers can help employees be both more productive and happier by encouraging them in small, meaningful ways. If you are a manager, I am sure you want employees who produce more and feel happier when they work; thus, make sure you make the effort to give them meaningful feedback about their work.

Thank you very much for your time.

Wish you have good and healthy days.



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Sevil Topal

Scrum Master, Agile Team Facilitator, Industrial Engineer, Wanderluster, texting about business, agility, scrum, wellness, productivity, travel, and 20’s life.