One free way to increase motivation

When thinking about workplace motivation, we think about motivators like money, responsibility, and promotions. Those aspects play a role, but there are far simpler tools we can use as well. One tool is just acknowledging hard work and saying “Thank you.”

In Payoff, Dan Arielly describes an experimental condition that illustrated this. Participants were presented with a sheet of paper full of random letters and asked to circle identical pairs of letters that appeared next to one another. Simple enough. When the participant turned in their assignment to the experimenter, they were paid $0.55. The experimenter then asked if they would be willing to complete a second sheet for 5 cents less. This continued until the money was eventually not worth the effort.

Now, imagine three experimental conditions. In the first group called the “Acknowledged” group, participants were asked to put their name in the top left corner of the sheet. When turned in their sheets, the experimenter looked at the sheet carefully, said “uh huh,” and put the sheet facedown on the desk.

The second condition was the “Ignored” group. Participants didn’t put their name on the paper. When they turned in their paper, the experimenter just placed it facedown on the desk without looking at it.

The “Shredded” group was the most extreme. Participants didn’t put their name on the paper. When they turned it in, the experimenter didn’t even look at it before putting it through a shredder.

You can guess which group worked the longest (Acknowledged), but which group completed the fewest sheets of paper?

The results showed that the “Shredded” and “Ignored” groups were nearly identical. The Acknowledged group worked until the payment was down around $0.15. The other groups stopped at roughly $0.27.

The takeaway:

This suggests that if you really want to demotivate people, “shredding” their work is the way to go, but that you can get almost all the way there simply by ignoring their efforts. Acknowledgement is a kind of human magic—a small human connection, a gift from one person to another that translates into a much larger, more meaningful outcome.

Acknowledgement and outward appreciation are free ways to increase motivation on your team. Saying “Thank you”—being specific about the action you’re thankful for and the positive result it had on the team—makes a huge impact in the long run.

Focus on the hard part

I recently finished listening to Seth Godin’s Startup School podcast. The episodes are short and well worth your time.

One clear message: Seth encourages the entrepreneurs to focus on the hard part of their business, which isn’t the same as the fun part.

The easy part is setting up your website, buying your domain name, and creating your logo. Almost anyone can do it. The hard part is finding someone to buy your product and deciding how you can market to them. Few people can do it.

Two of my dearest friends run an awesome company in Denver called Brewery Boot Camp. They partner with local breweries to offer an effective workout in a fun environment. They’re growing quickly now, which is exciting.

There are two ways to approach expansion: sign on more breweries or get more people to the existing breweries. Which one is the hard part?

Brief aside: This ties into a story Seth tells in the podcast about the start of the yellow pages. To sell advertising in the yellow pages, a sales rep walks into a pizza place. Instead of making a hard sales pitch, the sales rep offers to install a new phone in the restaurant. This new phone is connected to a new number and sits right beside the existing phone. The new number is then advertised in the yellow pages for a week. Orders are coming in like crazy, and it’s the new phone, not the old, existing one, that’s ringing off the hook. A week later, the sales rep comes back to take out the new phone. You can guess what happens next.

Signing on more breweries would be exciting, but it’s not that hard. Breweries want to have something new and exciting for their patrons.

Getting more people to existing brewery events is the hard part. Getting out of bed early on Saturday morning (even to workout at a brewery) is a tough call.

The good news is that once you solve the hard problem everything else gets easier. Once you can say, “We can bring 30 new patrons into your business every week” everyone is going to get onboard.

Building Many Different Career Ladders

Career ladders

In Primed to Perform, the authors discuss the importance of building a few different career ladders within your organization. The typical career ladder (become good at something then move to managing people) isn’t for everyone and susceptible to the Peter Principle.

What kind of other career ladders could you build within your organization? The authors lay out three potentials.

The Managerial Ladder

This is the career ladder we’re all familiar with. Individuals that pursue this ladder are masters of motivation and leading others. They thrive with solving difficult problems and seeing others thrive.

The Expert Ladder

Individuals that pursue this ladder develop extensive domain expertise. They become masters of their craft and share that knowledge with the rest of the company.

Let’s take a sales rep as an example. Instead of moving into a managerial role, they could perfect the art of talking to clients and making the sale. The trick then becomes not leading others but downloading their expertise in a way that helps everyone else.

The Customer Ladder

Before reading Primed to Perform, I didn’t think of this as a separate ladder. The authors describe the “Customer ladder” as a role where employees master the art of talking to customers, understanding the direction of the company, and translating feedback to product teams. This role straddles marketing, sales, and product development.

I’m not sure I agree that the Customer ladder is useful as a third ladder. In reality, I think it could fit in the Expert ladder category, which would leave us with two options:

  1. Move into a leadership role.
  2. Become an expert in your field and help everyone else level up.

Regardless of which you choose, there needs to be an aspirational point, the pinnacle for success amongst those on your ladder. This is pretty straightforward for the Managerial ladder, but what about the Expert ladder? How do you define the pinnacle of that track?

Primed to Perform provides the example of IBM, which created a position called a “Fellow” to honor their top research scholars. It’s often considered more prestigious than a management position. A “Fellow” is someone within IBM that “embodies a place with pioneering vision in an ever-expanding field.” Fellow achievements include things like developing the first microscope that could show atoms and building the system that put the first man on the moon.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit with Automattic. How do you create a culture that emphasizes the importance of the Expert ladder? One way is simple. Automatticians continue to get pay increases regardless of whether they move into a leadership position. Therefore, a typical incentive (pay) is removed in many ways from a specific career ladder. This is just one idea, and other opportunities certainly exist to really highlight the contributions of the expert.

If you’ve figured out how to create the Expert ladder within your company, I’d love to chat. It’s certainly something I’m interested in!

Establishing forward momentum

This video from Simon Sinek on “Millennials in the Workplace” is making a ruckus on the internet. Sinek hits on including four factors preventing millennials from being successful in their careers. One reason is patience, a key characteristic of success.

In the workplace, patience is the ability to work hard at something for a long time knowing that mastery, fulfillment, and impact take years to develop. This ties into another concept that is critical—forward momentum. The two feed off one another.

Let’s say you’re looking to become the COO of a large organization. You’re fresh out of college and looking to climb the corporate ladder. Jumping straight to the COO level isn’t realistic; it’s akin to climbing a mountain in a single bound. This is where momentum comes in.

You build forward momentum in your career when you take one small step towards your goal. Start with the smallest project you can own within your company. Own it and do the best damn job you can. Next time, you’ll get assigned a bigger project. Again, you’re going to rock that one, which will lead to a bigger project and so on.

The tendency is to look at the top and think “Why don’t I get assigned the biggest projects?” We ignore the momentum that those at the top have built up over time. It takes years and years to build momentum, gain trust, and prove that you can deliver. The key is to start small and build forward momentum.

2016 Retrospective

Previously: 2015

Each year, I set aside some time to think about the previous 365 days, everything that went right and what can be improved. Overall, I’m really proud of what I was able to accomplish in 2016. My wife and I were fortunate enough to take some awesome vacations together. I continued to grow in my professional life and tackle difficult and rewarding projects. We doubled our yearly donation at Drink for Pink.

Here’s a full rundown of what went well and what I’m going to focus on for the next year.

What did I do right? What am I proud of?

I learned a ton and shared with others.
This year, I invested a lot of time in reading and learning particularly on leadership. I finished 35 books, listened to quite a few podcasts, spoke at a conference, and blogged a lot (every weekday since October). I’m really happy with my progress over the past year, and I’m going to double down on reading and sharing over the next year.

I established better work boundaries.
For several months in a row, I had a goal of logging off from work on time each night and setting clearer boundaries between work and non-work. This has been going really well. I rarely touch work on the weekends or my off days. I’m still far from perfect, but it has been a big improvement.

Alongside these items, I’m really excited about the opportunities I was fortunate enough to tackle last year and my relationship with my wife continued to grow.

What are my biggest opportunities for growth?

I didn’t launch as many projects as I had hoped.
I set out a pretty ambitious goal of shipping four projects in 2016. Of that list, I ended up only getting one live and online. I also failed at getting a regular newsletter out the door. I’m honestly not disappointed in the lackluster performance here. I couldn’t get excited about any of the projects on that list, and my main areas of work (Automattic and Drink for Pink) did really well this past year.

Drink for Pink fell short of our goal.
We raised $8,500 for breast cancer research in the state of Colorado this past year. That represents double what we raised in our first year, but it’s still a good bit short of our $10,000 goal. This is still a huge success, but I want to see us break $15,000 in 2017.

Looking forward to 2017

I’m going to continue narrowing my focus for 2017 and set even fewer goals that I can knock out of the park.

Learn more and share knowledge with others.

Action #1: Finish 40 books and continue to publish book notes.

Action #2: Read alongside the awesome folks in the remote book club we started up. Our first focus is on marketing. We’ll be diving into a stack of books during the first part of the year.

Action #3: Blog every weekday. This simple habit has become incredibly important to me. It pushes me to learn, think, and share more.

Work less.

Action #1: Refrain from starting any new projects in 2017. Focus on excelling at everything I already have in motion.

Action #2: Track the days I take off in 2017. I don’t have a specific number in mind, but I would like to see how many actual days I take off in a year.

Action #3: Take off for several impromptu weekend adventures with my wife.

Raise money with Drink for Pink

Action #1: Hit $15,000+ in donations for all of 2017.

Learn JavaScript deeply

I got sidetracked by some other projects towards the latter half of 2016 that detracted from my coding work.

Action #1: Complete 30 pull requests in 2017 to Calypso.

Action #2: Complete the SQL and PHP courses in Treehouse.

Action #3: Apply to the JavaScript Wrangler position at Automattic.

At the end of each year, I try to remind myself that the most important part is to keep moving forward. We routinely underestimate what we can accomplish in a year and overestimate what we can accomplish in a week. Keep your head down and keep putting on foot in front of the other.

Changing Your Base Assumptions

I was chatting with an awesome member of our team at Automattic, Sarah, the other day about handling frustrated users in live chat. She has an amazing talent for staying calm (likely developed during her years as a teacher).

When asked about how she stays so unperturbed, she replied that she starts from the assumption that everyone is there to learn. Every customer at is there precisely because they want to build their site and establish their voice online. With that frame of mind, frustration presents an opportunity to teach.

Our base set of assumptions impacts how we interpret situations. The right assumptions can drastically impact our behavior.

For customers, assume that they signed up for your product or service specifically because they want to use it. They’re open to learning. Frustration presents opportunities for improvement. Switch from “How on earth do they not get it?” to “Where did we drop the ball? How are we letting this person down?”

For colleagues, assume that they want to do their best work. Actions to the contrary aren’t signs of malice. They’re opportunities to say, “Where did this go wrong?” and “How did I incentivize the wrong behavior?”

Regardless of the situation, here two base assumptions to operate from:

  1. Everyone is trying to do their best work.
  2. Everyone wants to have an impact and feel valued.

I don’t know how…

…should be removed from your vocabulary unless it’s followed by the word “yet.” Here are two replacements:

“I haven’t learned that yet.”

“I’m not sure where to start. Can you point me in the right direction?”

“I don’t know how” presents a closed door. The other variations present an open one instead. “I’m not there yet, but show me the path.”

Just like other parts of a growth mindset, self-education is a reaction we can practice. Instead of an insurmountable wall, we can choose to see a challenge meant to be conquered.

It’s hard to find something I’m more passionate about than self-education. There are limitless learning opportunities available to anyone with an internet connection or a public library card. We just have to take advantage of them.

Explore, read, learn, and practice. Then, most importantly, teach someone else.

Behavioral or Attitudinal Loyalty

In Customer Success, the authors breakdown two types of customer loyalty:

Attitudinal loyalty—Customers that are loyal because they love a particular brand.

Behavioral loyalty—Customers that are only loyal because they’re trapped.

If you only have one grocery store in your town, you’re going to exhibit behavioral loyalty. You’re a repeat customer because you don’t have any other choice.

On the flip side, if you drive past three grocery stores just to get to the nearest Publix, you’re exhibiting attitudinal loyalty. You have many options, but you’re picking Publix because of what they stand for, how you’re treated, etc.

Companies like Apple have the best of both worlds. As you buy more iDevices and become more dependent on iCloud, switching to Android becomes harder (behavioral). At the same time, they have millions of raving fans exhibiting attitudinal loyalty.

Attitudinal loyalty is built on amazing experiences. It has strong ties into customer support. Every interaction is a chance to reinforce attitudinal loyalty by exceeding expectations, removing roadblocks, and delivering delight.

Creating your own luck

I recently read What to Do When It’s Your Turn by Seth Godin. One chapter in particular caught my eye. It’s titled “Luck School.” The chapter mentions the work of Richard Wiseman and his book called The Luck Factor.

Wiseman dug into the science behind “luck.” He concluded that lucky individuals create their own good fortune through four factors:

“They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities, make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition, create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations, and adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.”

These are all skills we can practice.

We can practice noticing opportunities and grading our predictions. Businesses provide an easy proxy. Read TechCrunch or peruse AngelList. Make predictions about which companies will survive (and why). Check back in a year and see if you were right.

We can create chance opportunities by shipping projects out into the world. Justin Jackson is a great model when it comes to this.

Listening to your intuition takes skill. It doesn’t happen when you’re frantically working. It happens during quiet periods where you have time to think. Build that time into your day.

We can create positive expectations. We can practice envisioning all the ways this can go right.

We can adopt a growth mindset and approach disappointing outcomes as learning experiences. We can practice getting back up to bat.