Leveraging the Nuances of Motivation

When it comes to work satisfaction, financial compensation has long been regarded as one of the most important motivating factors. It’s assumed that if people aren’t compensated well for the work they do, they won’t be happy. In contrast, another popular conviction is that finding joy and purpose in your work is even more important than receiving substantial compensation.


Whichever you think is more important, it’s true that both fair compensation and perceived purpose are essential factors when it comes to work satisfaction. But it has also become clear that there’s a lot more to it.


Bestselling author and renowned speaker Dan Ariely, who serves as a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, spoke at a 2012 TED conference on the topic of “What makes us feel good about our work?” Ariely presented about a number of behavioral experiments that he and his team have conducted that revealed several intriguing nuances of people’s attitude toward work.


In one particular experiment, Ariely’s team measured participants’ willingness to continue work in three slightly different situations.


  1. In the first group, as participants finished their work, their work was acknowledged, inspected, and set aside. They were then asked to repeat the same task.
  2. In the second group, the participants did the same work, but their work was ignored and set aside. They too were asked to continue repeating the task.
  3. In the third group, again the same work and the same request to continue, but this time their work was immediately destroyed in front of them after completion of each task.


In all three groups, the participants were offered monetary compensation that slowly decreased in amount each time they agreed to repeat the task.


It is probably no surprise that the difference in continuing motivation between the first and third groups was dramatic. In the “work acknowledged” group, motivation to continue working remained relatively high for a longer period of time. In the “work destroyed” group, motivation dropped off sharply. But perhaps the most intriguing results of the experiment are found in the second group, the “work ignored” group. For the participants whose work was ignored, their motivation dropped off almost as rapidly as that of those whose work was destroyed.


Ariely drew this eye-opening and far-reaching conclusion from the experiment:


“Ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort in front of their eyes!”


Through additional experiments and observations, Ariely went on to identify numerous other subtle nuances of motivation, including pride in personal effort and investment, and the allure and importance of a challenge. Motivation is definitely tied to much more than just payment. In what he called “a revised model of labor,” Ariely explained that Motivation = Payment + Meaning + Creation + Challenge + Ownership + Identity + Pride, etc.


As a leader, it’s critical that you learn and leverage the many nuances of motivation for those whom you lead. Make sure their work – and just as importantly, your response to their work – aligns with these significant motivational factors. The difference in effectiveness between demotivated, uninspired people and those who are passionate and inspired is extraordinary!


Make sure you’re not “ignoring” or “shredding” the effort and performance of those whom you lead. Learn and leverage the nuances of motivation. The ROI will be priceless!



To watch Dan Ariely’s full TED talk, please click here.




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Copyright 2013 Dan Nielsen
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I am a leader, speaker, and author who is passionate about Leadership Excellence and Achieiving Greater Success. I am the author of the books Be An Inspirational Leader(2016) and Presidential Leadership (2013), and deliver keynote presentations on those topics and several others.

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