We shouldn’t have to be told that people’s hearts and souls are not piñatas, and yet here we are. Duke psychology professor and behavioral economist Dan Ariely says when it comes to increasing motivation, there’s a precursor lesson many managers, teachers and parents miss: stop crushing spirits.
It sounds so obvious but perhaps that’s why it’s such an overlooked facet of motivation. Bosses and people in authority positions often unknowingly demoralize those around them. “We do lots of those things,” says Ariely. “We get people to start projects and we cut it in the middle. We get people to prepare presentations and they never get delivered. We do all kinds of things that eliminate motivation… lots of people are working in an environment like that.”
Ariely was called in to speak with a group of 200 software engineers whose CEO axed the project they’d been developing for two years, just like that. The engineers were devastated, depressed, and some left the company. When Ariely asked them how the CEO could have caused them less pain, they answered that this project they’d built could be useful internally in the company, they could have built just a few prototypes as an experiment, they could have broken down the software into modules that could be used in other existing projects. The dominant feeling was that these engineers just wanted something to happen with their work. Managers don’t intend to do harm, says Ariely, they just don’t appreciate the role that meaning plays in motivation.
Once managers have curbed their habit of accidentally killing of motivation, they can start to swing back into positive terrain by increasing it. One of the most simple strategies is also the most inexpensive: giving people credit where it’s due. Credit is free, says Ariely, so give it to everyone. If someone has their name on something or is publicly recognized for their work, they are much more committed to maintaining that work and develop a level of ownership that drives motivation. “It’s not just about name association. It’s about the feeling of contribution and the feeling that you have a say, autonomy, right? That you’re not just told what you’re going to do, it’s that you are doing it.”
Ariely explains an experiment done with children regarding ownership over their drawings that is both amusing and enlightening – it's in the video above.