About a year ago, I was invited to speak at a large programming company in Seattle, Washington. I was told the audience included 200 engineers who were working on an idea that would change the company’s future.
The lecture was booked three or four months in advance, and then a week before I arrived the project was killed.

I ended up speaking before one of the most depressed groups I’ve ever met. The workers told me what had happened, and I told them about one of our research projects: We invited people to the laboratory and asked them to make Lego robots. We paid them a sum that decreased with every robot − for the first robot they got $3, for the second they got $2.70, and so on. Every time they finished a robot, we asked them if they wanted to build another one.

Afterward, we invited a second group to the laboratory and did the same thing, but with a slight twist − when they started building the second robot, we took the first robot apart in front of them, so that by the time they got to the third robot they were given the pieces from the first robot to work with, and so on. We called this the “Sisyphean twist.” The results were clear: The second group made fewer robots. In other words, they enjoyed the work less.

The folks at that programming company really identified with the experiment. When I asked how many of them were coming to work later over the past week they all raised their hands. I asked: “How many of you are leaving earlier?” Again, they all raised their hands. “How many of you are cheating the office a little bit?” No one raised a hand and they all laughed, but afterward at dinner they showed me just how creative they could be with their expenses.

Everyone knew that these were people who had been working very hard and very much liked what they do, but lately they’d simply had the wind knocked out of them.

I asked them what they thought a CEO should do in such a situation. Presume he had to cancel the project. How could he do it without destroying their motivation entirely?

They had some interesting responses. One said the engineers could have been asked to present the project they’d worked on for the past two years to the company’s other employees, to give them at least the fillip of social credit. Another said the CEO could have asked if any part of the technology they’d developed could be used elsewhere in the company. A third suggestion was to use the working prototype.

What was interesting was that all the suggestions necessitated effort and money. But that CEO hadn’t thought that maintaining his workers’ motivation necessitated an investment of time and money.

As long as the CEO presumes that workers are motivated by their salaries and physical conditions, he’ll continue treating them like mice − having them run in one direction and, when that doesn’t work, sending them scurrying in another. Based on that outlook, he’s treating his employees perfectly well and has no reason to use more money and resources to preserve motivation. But the CEO needs to understand that money isn’t the only thing motivating workers. Satisfaction from what they do is just as important. Once that is understood, the CEO can invest true effort in preventing his workers from collapsing when they feel − rightly − like Sisyphus.

After we finished the Lego research we started another experiment. We asked people what they thought the results of the Lego project were in the two instances.

Everyone gave more or less the right answer and said that the first group would make more robots, but they failed to guess the performance gap between the two groups. They guessed it would be small. In practice, it was very large.
Here’s another real-life example. A former student came to visit me. He was particularly morose. It turned out that an important presentation he’d been working on for weeks had suddenly been canceled.

The company he worked for had been planning to buy out another company but the process had been halted. He too felt used, he too was angry, he too didn’t want to invest in the next project. His motivation was damaged. Obviously no one tried to hurt him intentionally, but his manager should have thought how that presentation could be used.

My recommendation to CEOs: Even when a project or process needs to be halted, do everything you can to keep employees from feeling that their hard work is being thrown into the trash. Dismissal of their effort can have a critical long-term impact on their motivation, which can be prevented through awareness and effort.

Prof. Dan Ariely is a researcher and lecturer at Duke University, and the author of the best sellers “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions” and “The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home.”This column was originally published in Hebrew in TheMarker Magazine’s February edition.

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