What does the finish line look like?

Good leaders paint a vision of the future that their team can attach to. As Adam Grant puts it in Originals, they create a gap between how things exist now and what they could look like:

The greatest communicators of all time…start by establishing “What is…here’s the status quo.” Then, they compare that to what could be making that gap as big as possible.

As inspiring as these alternate futures can be, they’re also typically a few years in the future with many miles between here and there. Your role as a leader within an organization is to motivate your team and set up a framework wherein that dream future becomes a reality.

There are (at least) two tricky aspects:

  1. How do you maintain motivation as a team when the finish line seems so far away (and often seemingly moving farther away each day)?
  2. How do you keep the finish line in focus when it’s months/years down the road?

The first piece can manifest in various ways. Teams can lose motivation in the middle of the journey or mistake a step in the right direction as crossing the finish line. It’s important to celebrate overcoming hurdles and making progress along the way, but it’s equally important to reinforce that these intermediate steps are just that, steps along the way.

The second piece becomes more evident as team members do the daily work required for forward progress. It’s easy to “lose sight of the forest for the trees” as the saying goes.

Grant provided two workarounds to help a team stay attached to the larger picture even as they’re heads down doing the actual work.

First, it’s so very important to reinforce that gap between the way things currently are and the way things could be in the future. We systematically undercommunicate this vision because it’s so familiar to us already:

You know the lyrics and the melody of your idea by heart. By that point, it’s no longer possible to imagine what it sounds like to an audience that’s listening to it for the first time. This explains why we undercommunicate our ideas. They’re already so familiar to us that we underestimate how much exposure an audience needs to comprehend and buy into them.

Second, invite others to help share your vision, particularly customers. They’ll offer a unique perspective and connect team members with individuals actually benefiting from their work.

People are inspired to achieve the highest performance when leaders describe a vision and then allow customers to bring it to life with a personal story. The leader’s message provides an overarching vision to start the car, and the personal story steps on the accelerator.

This piece about inviting customers to bring to life the vision with a personal story resonated in particular. Meeting real WordPress users at WordCamps around the country helps to reinvigorate the work I do at Automattic. Finding ways to bring in real-life customer stories into our work is something I’m actively thinking about.

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.

The wrong incentives and workplace motivation

(Note: I have an extra copy of Your Turn by Seth Godin. If you want it, just email me at jeremeylduvall – gmail.com with your address, and I’ll send it your way!)

In Primed to Perform, authors Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor cover motivation in the workplace. What kinds of incentives and situations promote the right kind of motivations? Here are three ways that indirect motivators (emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia) can negatively impact performance.

The distraction effect explains how our focus on the stakes of a situation can ruin our performance. This applies to creative, problem-solving tasks.

This is illustrated through two tasks:

  1. Students have to press two keys as quickly as possible. Group A is told if they do well they’ll earn up to $300. Group B is told they would earn up to $30.
  2. Students have to solve a simple math problem. Same group setup with a max of $300 offered to one and a max of $30 offered to the other.

In task #1, Dan Ariely (the author of the study) found that the higher reward increased performance much as you might expect. Pressing keys on a computer is not a creative task.

In task #2, the higher paying group actually did worse than the lower paying group.

The cancellation effect says that your motivation to do the right thing can be cancelled out. Put short-term pressure on colleagues, and their willingness go the extra mile for customers could suffer.

When motivation is low, the wrong kinds of incentives can produce trade-off situations. The authors lay out three examples:

  1. Quality and quantity
  2. Individuality and teamwork
  3. Near-term and long-term results

The cobra effect says that your solution could actually make the problem worse. Every job, every metric creates an opportunity for maladaptive performance. When motivation is low, team members look for the shortest path to ease the pressure, even if that doesn’t serve the end goal.

The name comes from the 1800’s when India was still under the British government. The British set out to lower the number of cobras in the city by paying a bounty for dead cobras. Cobra farms also popped up outside of town breeding cobras they could then kill for bounty.