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.