Motivating Your Employees Without Money

Workers receiving bonus

by Peter Cosgrove, MD of Futurewise Ltd.

In a work research study conducted by Dan Ariely, participants were asked to find pairs of identical letters in a large page of random letters. They were paid for this, but got paid less after each page that they submitted. The research participants were split into three groups:

People in the first group wrote their names on their sheets and handed them to the experimenter, who glanced at it and said “Uh huh” before putting it in a tray. People in the second group didn’t write down their names, and the experimenter put their sheets in a tray without looking at them. People in the third group had their work shredded immediately upon completion, in full view of them.

When they analysed the results, they saw that people whose work was shredded needed twice as much money as those whose work was acknowledged, in order to keep doing the task.  It is probably not surprising, when you see your work not just discarded but destroyed after completion, this will lead to a serious lack of motivation. However, what surprised researchers was that people in the second group, whose work was put in a tray, but they were ignored. They needed almost as much money as those whose work was shredded.

The upshot of this experiment (and many similar ones since) is that ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort in front of their eyes!

The good news is that adding motivation is not difficult, a simple five second acknowledgement of the piece of paper handed in was sufficient. The bad news is that eliminating motivation seems to be incredibly easy, and something we may be unconsciously doing more than we think.  When we analyse how our employees are working there are a lot of factors at play, and rarely is money the decisive factor. Employees are driven by the meaningfulness of the work and crucially by the acknowledgement of their manager.

Now, reflect on your interactions with your employees particularly in the hybrid world where so much is over a screen, where in an online meeting you often don’t get to have that one-minute side conversation with an employee. How are you encouraging them, giving them feedback? In this experiment even a five second acknowledgement made a huge difference? In a world where “busy” is the norm, we all have five seconds to spare but I suggest we give a little more time than that.

About the author

Peter Cosgrove leads Futurewise and is an expert on future trends and a much sought-after speaker on talks related to the future of work. He has over 25 years business experience on executive teams as well as on not for profit boards as board member and Chairman. He has been Chair of Junior Achievement Ireland, the National Recruitment Federation and currently serves on the 30% Club Steering Committee tackling gender balance and is Vice Chairman of Aware, a leading mental health charity. Peter has served as a Board adviser for a number of Staffing organisations and has been a contributor to the Expert Group on Future Skills.