Want to Increase Motivation? Step 1: Stop Crushing Spirits

Team leaders often think about ways they can increase motivation – but little thought goes into how they might be killing it.

Dan Ariely:  So the first lesson is don’t kill motivation. You know businesses are often not about just increasing it, it is by stop decreasing it. I’ll tell you a story I gave a talk at a company in Seattle a few years ago. It’s a big software company and I was giving a talk and I was in this room with 200 really depressed engineers talking to them. It turns out they were working on whatever the next version of the – they were working on something really important and big for that company and the week before I showed up the CEO of the company came to them and canceled the project. And they were incredibly devastated. This was a group that worked for two years on something that they felt would be the next great thing for that company and the week before he just canceled it. And they did not show up on time. They were just devastated. They were just morally devastated and by the way after that many of them just left the company. They were very good people. They were just so demoralized. And I asked them I said okay, let’s just assume the CEO had to cancel the project. Let’s assume he had to cancel for whatever reason. Let’s not question that.

What could the CEO have done not to get you to be so depressed? And they came up with all kinds of ideas. They said what if he allowed them to make a few working prototypes and distribute them within the company for a few years. Just kind of see what people do with them. They say what if he allowed them to take parts of this new technology that we’re developing and see which parts will be useful in other parts of the organization, right, have some kind of leftovers from the project. They said what if you would allow them to do a workshop for the whole company to show them the journey of the last two years. What they’ve accomplished, what they’ve learned, what they struggled with, what they figured out. And the thing about all of those suggestions, all of them would have needed some time, money and effort, right. And if the CEO thinks that those people are just like rats in a cage he said oh, I told you to go this way, you went this way. Now I want to go somewhere else. I’ll close that gate. I’ll tell you to go somewhere else. Then you don’t need to worry about motivation. But if you understand that motivation is incredibly important then you say how do we get these people who have invested a lot I this and how we don’t just crush their spirits. But what he did was to crush their spirits. So lesson number one is stop crushing people’s spirit. And, you know, it might seem like a ridiculous obvious thing to do but if you look at lots of companies you’ll see lots of places where not because people intend to do harm but just because we don’t truly appreciate where meaning comes to life.

We do lots of those things. 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. Imagine we were doing this little video segment and we knew all along there’s a good chance it will never see the light of day. It will just never be posted or anything like it. A black hole where it’s being posted and nobody, nobody, nobody will see it. How exciting would that be. You know lots of people are working in an environment like that. Now the more important question is how do we get people to be, you know, get more motivation, not just stop decreasing motivation but increasing the sense of meaning. Lots of ways to do it and maybe the best example is to think about the open source community. One of the things that happened in the open source community is that there was a legal advance where they basically agreed that everybody who writes a piece of code their name would always be connected to it. Now you can say who cares. People care. If your name is connected to a piece of code you’re going to maintain that piece of code forever. There was a period in time where people were worried about getting open source software. They said who’s going to maintain it? If your name is connected to it you’re going to maintain it. And indeed people maintain all kinds of software in all kinds of unlikely events.

And people invest in it and knowing that if I create something and other people build on it, it would always have my name and my connection and my sense of contribution is incredibly motivating. So just think about that simple idea of where do we put people’s names. On every piece of software. Like why on the hood of the car all the people who are involved could sign their name in a very small print. And then of course there’s other things, right. 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. There’s a very cute experiment in which they take kids. They come with their mother to a lab and they go into a separate room with the research assistants. And they do a drawing together and one time the research assistant does the drawing and the kid tells them what to do. So the kids give the instructions and the research assistant does the mechanical work. Another condition the research assistant gives the instruction and the kids, the kid does the mechanical work. And then as they finish it the research assistant takes the drawing in their hand, go out of the room first before the kid, shows it to the mother and says look what I did. And the question is when will the kid be more upset, right. So the research assistant takes credit for the kid’s job. When will the kid be more upset? When the kid did the drawing but the idea was somebody else’s or when the idea was the kid’s and somebody else did the mechanical thing?

And the kids get more upset when it was their idea, which was their idea. Think about how much we don’t give credit in this world to other people’s ideas. How many people feel that their ideas were taken, somebody else is using it and they don’t get credit. Credit is free, right. Credit is great. Give everybody credit, right. There’s a team of a 100 people, give everybody credit. Why not? Why are we so stingy with giving people credit. Anyway, so there’s lots of other examples like this where you could just say let’s look at all the things that give people a sense of meaning and let’s just try to give more of it on an every day basis.

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.

Ariely's newest book is Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations.

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Public health crisis: Facebook ads misinform about HIV prevention drug

Facebook's misinformation isn't just a threat to democracy. It's endangering lives.

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  • Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada.
  • Over the years, Facebook's hands-off ad policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its political ads.
  • Unregulated "surveillance capitalism" commodifies people's personal information and makes them vulnerable to sometimes misleading ads.

LGBT groups are saying that Facebook is endangering lives by advertising misleading medical information pertaining to HIV patients.

The tech giant's laissez-faire ad policy has already been accused of threatening democracy by providing a platform for false political ads, and now policy could be fostering a major public-health concern.

LGBT groups take on Facebook’s ad policy

According to LGBT advocates, for the past six months Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada. The ads, which The Washington Post reports appear to have been purchased by personal-injury lawyers, claim that these medications threaten patients with serious side effects. According to LGBT organizations led by GLAAD, the ads have left some patients who are potentially at risk of contracting HIV scared to take preventative drugs, even though health officials and federal regulators say the drugs are safe.

LGBT groups like GLAAD, which regularly advises Facebook on LGBT issues, reached out to the company to have the ads taken down, saying they are false. Yet, the tech titan has refused to remove the content claiming that the ads fall within the parameters of its policy. Facebook spokeswoman Devon Kearns told The Post that the ads had not been rated false by independent fact-checkers, which include the Associated Press. But others are saying that Facebook's controversial approach to ads is creating a public-health crisis.

In an open letter to Facebook sent on Monday, GLAAD joined over 50 well-known LGBTQ groups including the Human Rights Campaign, the American Academy of HIV Medicine and the National Coalition for LGBT Health to publicly condemn the company for putting "real people's lives in imminent danger" by "convincing at-risk individuals to avoid PrEP, invariably leading to avoidable HIV infections."

What Facebook’s policy risks 

Of course, this is not the first time Facebook's policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its ads. Social media has been both a catalyst and conduit for the rapid-fire spread of misinformation to the world wide web. As lawmakers struggle to enforce order to cyberspace and its creations, Facebook has become a symbol of the threat the internet poses to our institutions and to public safety. For example, the company has refused to take down 2020 election ads, largely funded by the Trump campaign, that spew false information. For this reason, Facebook and other social media platforms present a serious risk to a fundamental necessity of American democracy, public access to truth.

But this latest scandal underlines how the misconstrued information that plagues the web can infect other, more intimate aspects of American lives. Facebook's handling of paid-for claims about the potential health risks of taking Truvada and other HIV medications threatens lives.

"Almost immediately we started hearing reports from front-line PrEP prescribers, clinics and public health officials around the country, saying we're beginning to hear from potential clients that they're scared of trying Truvada because they're seeing all these ads on their Facebook and Instagram feeds," said Peter Staley, a long-time AIDS activist who works with the PrEP4All Collaboration, to The Post.

Unregulated Surveillance Capitalism

To be fair, the distinction between true and false information can be muddy territory. Personal injury lawyers who represent HIV patients claim that the numbers show that the potential risks of medications such as Turvada and others that contain the ingredient antiretroviral tenofovir may exist. This is particularly of note when the medication is used as a treatment for those that already have HIV rather than prevention for those that do not. But the life-saving potential of the HIV medications are unequivocally real. The problem, as some LGBT advocates are claiming, is that the ads lacked vital nuance.

It also should be pointed out that Facebook has taken action against anti-vaccine content and other ads that pose threats to users. Still, the company's dubious policies clearly pose a big problem, and it has shown no signs of adjusting. But perhaps the underlying issue is the failure to regulate what social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism" by which people's experiences, personal information, and characteristics become commodities. In this case, paid-for personal-injury legal ads that target users with certain, undisclosed characteristics. It's been said that you should be wary of what you get for free, because it means you've become the product. Facebook, after all, is a business with an end goal to maximize profits.

But why does a company have this kind of power over our lives? Americans and their legislators are ensnared in an existential predicament. Figure out how to regulate Facebook and be accused with endangering free speech, or leave the cyber business alone and risk the public's health going up for sale along with its government.