Category Archives: Motivation

Brilliant study: Chimps would rather cooperate than compete

A BRILLIANT study found that:

When given a choice between cooperating or competing, chimpanzees choose to cooperate five times more frequently.

And also that:

The chimpanzees used a variety of enforcement strategies to overcome competition, displacement and freeloading, which the researchers measured by attempted thefts of rewards.

These strategies included the chimpanzees directly protesting against others, refusing to work in the presence of a freeloader, which supports avoidance as an important component in managing competitive tendencies, and more dominant chimpanzees intervening to help others against freeloaders.

This indicates that cooperation is hardwired into humans on a biological level by evolution.

Which makes you wonder why so many workplaces heavily emphasize competition over cooperation.

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Jobs, careers and callings – the surprising truth about happiness and motivation at work

Amy Wrzesniewski is a professor of organizational behavior at Yale School of Management. Her main interest is how people find meaning at work which is a fascinating topic and her work has been a huge inspiration to our work here at Woohoo inc. We recently had a chance to talk to her about it and here’s the transcript that reveals some real surprises about what makes us happy and motivated at work.

Read the interview below and learn:

  • Why people who find meaning in their work are happier at work and in life
  • Why monetary rewards can make us less effective at work
  • How external motivators like raises and bonuses kill our internal motivation over time
  • How to help employees find meaning at work

One of the main distinctions that you’ve found in your work is, that there are three ways people find meaning in their work. They can see it as a “job”, as a “career” or a “calling”. That’s a brilliant concept. Could you please explain each of those.

Sure. This is together with many collaborators and co-authors of mine. We’ve for a long time been interested in understanding the nature of the relationship between people and the work they do, with the idea that it isn’t necessarily a property of the job itself, how people think about or connect with their work.

So we’ve developed a measure and have studied people in lots of different kinds of occupations and have found that people, regardless of occupation, can see the work that they do as a “job” where the focus is primarily financial, where you get a paycheck out and the work is primarily about the economic exchange with the organization more than about the work itself.

Or people can see the work that they do more as a “career” where the focus is on advancement within that occupation or within that field, within the same organization or across different organizations over time. For people who have a stronger career orientation, their focus is on advancement and moving forward, with the accompanying increases in prestige and power and so on that come with that.

The last orientation we study is the “calling” orientation, where people are working not for career advancement or for financial gain, but instead for the fulfilment or the meaning that the work itself brings to the individual. People who see their work more as a calling see the work as an end in itself that is deeply fulfilling and regardless of the kind of work they’re doing, they tend to see the work as having a societal benefit.

That is absolutely fascinating. How common is each of these orientations. How many people fall into each of these three buckets?

We looked across wide swaths of different occupations and what we find is about a third, a third, and a third of people, one of these is strongest for them.

Interestingly, if someone strongly identifies with one, they won’t strongly endorse the others. We know this both from a sort of vignette kind of paragraph measure that we use but also lots of single item measures that we use to study this.

If you look in, say, caring professions where you would imagine that there are more people who see the work as a calling, you do find that. The propensity to have a calling is stronger there, but interestingly, it isn’t necessarily universal. People who are engaging very much in work that we might idealize in our culture to be callings, may very well see that work as just a job or as a way to advance to become, say, head of the department or something like this.

Is there a difference between low wage and high wage jobs or low education/high education? There might be a perception that you might find more people with a calling orientation among doctors or engineers and maybe less so among fast food employees serving burgers.

It’s a great question. What we find generally is that people who have stronger calling orientation tend to have higher incomes and tend to be more educated.

However, if you think about the kind of work that people go into, if you are coming from a level of income or a level of the education and educational opportunities that would allow you to pursue something that you find to be more meaningful, you would expect generally that people in that group would be more likely to have found something that they feel is a calling.

What’s interesting to me, very interesting in my opinion, is that even when you look at jobs that are at the lower end of the educational, income or status hierarchy, you also find people who see their work as a calling, just as you find people at the top of the education and income hierarchy who see their work as just a job.

And they look more similar to each other on the basis of their approach to the work they do, because that predicts how happy they are in their work, how satisfied they are with their work, and how satisfied they are with their lives.

So even across the income and education spectrum, identification with these orientations and the pattern of relationships between the orientation and people’s well-being is the same regardless.

So you don’t need a university degree or a CEO title to find this calling orientation.

No. In fact, people we’ve studied who are doing groundskeeping work, laborers, people doing janitorial work -  again work that in society we tend to view as being perhaps not necessarily as meaningful – can be experienced in incredibly meaningful ways and seen as a calling by people who are doing that work. Just as you also see people who do that work who see it as just a job or who see it as a career where they want to move up and say manage people who do this kind of work.

It’s not the province of the work itself it really is a function of the relationship between the person and the work that they’re doing.

Interesting. That means that it is accessible to most people. Do you have any great examples? Have you met any people in, which on the face of it are low status jobs, but who had this calling orientation?

Yes. You know, people who work as trash collectors, who collect the garbage in the town in which they work, who experience their work as being critically important to society, who feel that every day they are beautifying the world by removing the things that we don’t need and taking them away and who feel that this again this work is something that the entire region couldn’t function without it, which is true. And it’s work that gets them outside, they’re in touch with people who live in the town, they’re in touch with nature, and see the work in very positive terms. And certainly much more positive terms than people who study work from the perspective of the design of the job would have expected.

Same thing in a study that I did with colleagues of mine, looking at people who clean hospital rooms for their job. That involves a lot of dealing with cleaning products and seeing pain and suffering since you’re in a medical environment. Again, there were people who saw the work very much as a job. It’s a way to get benefits, make a paycheck, and so on. But there were also people who saw that work as a way to fulfil a calling, where they could play a role in the lives of the people who were in the hospital. They’re doing the same kinds of duties, they have the same kinds of job descriptions, but they redefine it in terms of how they think about what the work is, why it is there, and what it is they’re doing, in very different ways, that again is reflected in a much deeper enjoyment of the work and sense of importance of the work to other people.

Is it fair to say that people with the calling orientation generally are happier in their jobs?

Yes. People who have a calling orientation, regardless of the kind of work they’re doing, have a significantly higher job satisfaction and also significantly higher life satisfaction.

It’s not, again, a province of what the work is or what the job is, it’s how the person is relating to that work, how they think about what it is they’re doing there.

And what about the other two groups? Who is the least happy?

You know it’s an interesting question. When we had originally begun to study this question, we had thought that the job orientation would perhaps be the least happy, because there’s less of their identity invested in the work, because it’s simply more of a financial exchange than anything else.What we find, to my surprise, is that people who see the work as a job or a career are equally less satisfied with the work and are equally less satisfied with their lives.

In the research I have done, one of the things that I wonder about is, in the job orientation, there’s a focus on the instrumental; it’s a means to an instrumental end. In a career orientation, there’s also an instrumental end. It’s just what that end is, it’s different. It’s about advancing, it’s about increasing your status and so on.

My sense is that they’re more similar than we might think. When it’s focused on instrumental ends, or things that are about the self, it seems to carry less meaning for people.

There’s a more recent paper done by Jochen Menges and his colleagues, Grant and others are on this paper as well, that look at people who see the work more as a job, but they’re engaging in this job as a way to give income or pay to their family members. This makes the work much more meaningful to them, again because it’s not so much about the self. That’s been the surprise of this, that job and career are more similar than we might think.

That’s absolutely fascinating. So what are some ways to cultivate his calling orientation? What are some things I can do for myself as an employee somewhere to achieve it? And what can the organization or the manager do for the employees to have that calling to feel that sense of meaning and calling orientation?

It’s a great question and I think it’s a complicated question.

This may be somewhat of a surprising thing for me to say, but there are many people for whom work is not a domain where they are seeking this kind of experience. They have put a lot of their identity, of where they see themselves fulfilling their purpose, outside of the domain of work. So the place to start off with, is to understand, is the employee seeking this kind of meaning in their work?

Many of them are, and are not finding it. I think for them, the best thing for these employees, would be to think about how they might act upon the design of their jobs. In other work I’ve done with with Jane Dutton and Justin Berg and other colleagues, we’ve looked at the practice of “job crafting.” How is it that people in the job they’re in, change elements of the tasks or of the relationships or interactions in a way that brings more of the kinds of things that they find to be useful, that they care about, passions that they feel into the work. I think this can transform the meaning of the work. And it’s very agentic, it’s done by the employee. That’s probably the best path for this within the job you have if it’s not possible to, say, move into a job that feels more like a calling.

For managers, this is somewhat tricky. Job crafting is a bottom-up activity, it’s an employee based activity. So rather than, say, advising managers of organizations to try to design jobs so that they’ll feel like callings, I think the best thing that they can do is create environments where people feel empowered to make changes to the kinds of work they’re doing, while obviously fulfilling their responsibilities to the organization right? You have to keep doing what it is that the organization has hired you to do. But can you approach that in a different way? Can you spend some more time in particular aspects of the tasks that are engaging to you? Can you build relationships in directions that, again, sort of will infuse the work with more meaning?

I think giving people permission to do this, and encouraging them to do this while fulfilling their duties to the organization, can be a very powerful and supportive move that managers and organizations can make.

This reminds me of the huge trend right now in self-managed organizations where you give employees more freedom. In a lot of these organizations, you’re not hired to do a job, you’re hired because you’re a great person with great skills, and then you have to create your own job. That would basically open the door for more of what you’re describing.

Yes, absolutely. I think even in organizations that we’ve studied, where people have a lot of latitude over how it is they’re spending their time and energy, what’s interesting is that over time even when you’ve defined it yourself, as time passes you move into this sort of more crystallized definition of the job. So even though it’s a job design you created, people can end up treating that job design as very static where it’s a set of things they must do and so on.

So even for people who have had the opportunity to design it themselves, we would encourage them to revisit this and think about “okay well how and where could you revisit this, to make it a more optimal way of expressing what it is you care most about, what it is that you find most meaningful, in a way that brings a lot of value to you in terms of the meaning that you’re finding in the work but also a lot of value to the organization. And make it an ongoing process not just a one-off design.

Fascinating. The reality is that even if we do see our work as a calling, we still do it for the money, okay? Unless you’re born to filthy rich parents, you have to work and you’re dependent on the paycheck. So these motivations, to some degree, have to coexist for most of us. You did a study recently on how they affect each other. Could you talk a little about the West Point study?

Yes, absolutely. So together with a number of colleagues, Barry Schwartz, Tom Colditz and others who supported this study, we studied about 10,000 West Point cadets. We followed them for a period of up to 14 years and the first thing we were interested in studying at West Point was what was the nature of their motivation for attending.

It’s a huge undertaking to make this commitment. You’re in a very intensive and rigorous academic environment and also military environment for four years, and following that time you are a commissioned officer for five years. So it’s a nine year commitment that people who are 18 or 19 years old are making.

You might imagine that all of them go because they want to serve their country and it’s about more internal motives about service and so on. But there’s a lot of variance as to why people are there. Some of them are there because it’s a free education that pays a small stipend. Some of them are there because they know that after they’re nine years of service they can leave and they will be likely to be employed and very attractive to organizations where they could have a rewarding career.

If you think about it, people who’ve gone through West Point and have become officers and so on really truly know how to lead. They’ve got a great education. So some of the people who go are there primarily because they know there will be a big career payoff later. So that particular motive we characterize as more of an instrumental motive. We studied them upon their arrival to West Point.

They rated all of these different reasons for why it was they undertook this course of action and we were interested in studying the question of whether one motivations was fine but maybe having two or three different motivations could be even better because then you have more legs to your stool. There are more reasons, perhaps, propping you up for why it is you’re there.

But what we found is something that has gotten also support in economics and psychology. Some people are motivated by internal reasons, things that are more akin to a calling. I’m doing this because it’s an end in itself, in this case, I’m here because I want to be an army officer, so that the aim of the institution and all of these activities is my aim. I’m not doing it for some other outcome that will follow from this – like being hired by fortune 500 companies or making more money later.

So we looked at that internal motive and we also look at this instrumental motive of going to West Point because you hoped to be in a more high-powered career later on. And we found that in every case the stronger the internal motivation of the cadet, the more likely they were to have positive outcomes over time. Those positive outcomes were:

  1. Make it through West Point. There’s a fair amount of attrition, it’s a very difficult institution.
  2. That they would be flagged for early promotion because they were an excellent officer in those first five years of service after they had graduated.
  3. And also that they would stay on and remain in the military after their required service as military officers.

And what’s interesting is multiple motives. For those cadets who who held these internal motives but where that instrumental motive was also apparent, the stronger the instrumental motive was, the poorer the outcomes were for each of these different categories. And so it undermined in essence the positive effect of the internal motivation on whether they made it through West Point, how well they did as army officers, and then how long they stuck it out in the military.

We feel this is really important because what it means is in anything we do, whether it’s being a student, whether it’s our jobs you know anything we do, we may have internal reasons for doing it, but if you do well in it, you will get instrumental rewards. You’ll get pay raises, you’ll get accolades, you’ll get these other kinds of things.

The distinction that we would make is between being pleased that you’re getting these things, versus being motivated by them, so they become the reason why you’re there. Like you said, most of us need to work unless we’re independently wealthy. It’s a given that we must work and we do need to pay attention to salary or the wage rate or whatever it might be. But make sure it doesn’t become your reason for being there. Keep it this secondary thing that you must sort of attend to, but it’s not a motive

We feel the power of internal motivation or the power of a calling orientation can really carry people to a different level of job satisfaction. In the case of West Point it drives performance and excellence as well. I think there’s a hugely important lesson there for companies, because they constantly try to tie performance to rewards.

What your what your study underlines, is that whenever you do that, the instrumental goal will crowd out the internal goal over time and make you focus more on the external motivator – the reward – than on the internal motivation, the calling, on the purpose of what they’re doing, right?

Yes. I think the best advice I could give to organizations would be to pay employees as well as you can. Then move the emphasis from that. The more that organizations narrate for people that the reason they’re there is to be making money, and what they want when things go well is more money, and that it all comes down to, you know, that they’re working there because they have these instrumental goals, the harder it is for someone to sustain in the face of that the feeling why it is they’re there, that has to do with the ethos of doing the work itself or the work as a focus of you know striving for excellence or wanting to accomplish the things that happen naturally as a result of the work, whether that’s teaching students or cleaning a street or cleaning a patient’s room.

If you are removing the focus from that and constantly reminding people that they’re really there because they’re getting money, I think both organizations but also individuals suffer.

Related posts

See all the fascinating talks from our 2017 Conference on Happiness at Work

We have now published all the amazing talks from our 2017 International Conference on Happiness at Work.

You can watch every single talk from the event above or at this link.

And if you think that looks awesome, join us in Copenhagen on May 17+18 2018 for the next conference. Sign up here to be notified when ticket sales start.

How to succeed in business if you’re not a morning person

Work has moved from cow to computer, but workplaces still favour early risers and an industrial-age view of productivity.

Camilla Kring has a PhD in Work-Life Balance and as owner of Super Navigators, makes workplaces happier by increasing the Work-Life Balance of their employees. She is specialized in creating flexible work cultures that support our differences in family forms, work forms and biological rhythms.

This is her talk from the International Conference on Happiness at Work 2017 in Copenhagen. Flexibility is among the keys to well-being, and management must have the courage to address the flexibility of their company’s work culture because culture determines whether employees have the courage to make use of flexibility.

The first step is to set people free from 9-5 and that work is something that only can take place at the office. Work is not a place – it’s an ongoing activity. Second, focus more on results and less on visibility. Third, give people the tools to improve their individual Work-Life Balance.

With Great Talent Comes Great Responsibility – how goals and KPIs demotivate the best employees

More and more workplaces want to measure everything. KPIs, scorecards and performance goals are supposed to motivate employees and help increase their productivity. But is that really a good way to motivate employees and makes them happy?

Helle Hein has a ph.d. in management and has done research on motivation for the past 20 years.

Her research shows that many people are not motivated by metrics and bonuses but by something more meaningful – a professional calling or a cause that matters deeply to them. Leading these people based only on performance measures and financial rewards leads to frustration and a huge loss of talent and motivation.

In this talk from the International Conference on Happiness at work 2017 in Copenhagen she will show you how your organization can get the most out of its most talented employees, what really motivates people (no, it’s not bonuses) and how to make sure that people feel that their work really matters to them.

Being great at your work vs. feeling great about your work

If we want to be happy in our jobs, we need to be good at our jobs.

We human beings have a basic need to know that we contribute, create value and can make a difference and effect change in our environment.

That’s why doing a good a job feels amazing. It gives us feelings like pride, accomplishment, fulfilment, growth and worth.

On the other hand, when we feel that we don’t perform well at work, it creates feelings like inadequacy and lack of control plus of course fear that we might lose our jobs.

And it’s also in the company’s best interest to make sure that every single employee and team is getting great results and living up to their potential. Companies typically focus on 4 areas to make that happen:

  • Skills: Training, competencies, job skills match,  …
  • Resources: Time, tools, IT-systems, …
  • Structure: Organization, plans, goals, budgets, strategy, processes, …
  • Support: Coworker+manager support, coaches/mentors, …

These are all important and enable us to get results. If your workplace is not giving employees these 4 things, then how on earth can you expect them to perform well?

If we want people to be happier at work, we can definitely help them get better results. We can give them better training, more resources, more support, etc. in order to help them perform better.

However, many people already get great results – but don’t feel that way. And if that’s the case, then they won’t be very happy at work.

This is a crucial distinction that few companies make – the distinction between getting good results and feeling good about those results. If we want employees to be happy at work, they also need the latter - and many don’t have that.

When that is the case, employees may get great results right now but it won’t be sustainable. When people are not happy at work, it hurts their motivation, productivity and creativity. Stress and burnout tend to follow.

So in addition to helping employees get great results, companies also need to make sure that people feel great about their results.

There are 3 things that give us that feeling of results.

1: Meaning

I saw this sign in the lobby of Danish pharmaceutical company Xellia, carrying probably the simplest and most inspiring company purpose I’ve ever seen.

As you may know, one of the biggest current medical crises is the increasing risk of infection by multi-resistant bacteria, which are immune to traditional antibiotics. Xellia produces an antibiotic that is still effective against multi-resistant bacteria. Their research and products directly saves lives all over the world.

It’s crucial that we know what we have to do at work, but  equally crucial that we know why we do it.

That is what gives work meaning and purpose: when you know why you do each task and how it somehow helps someone.

And it’s not enough that your work is meaningful to the organization – it must be meaningful to you. Your work must have a purpose that you believe is worthy.

On the other hand, if you have no idea why your work matters and no sense that it makes any kind of a difference, it really doesn’t matter how good you are at your job – you won’t be very happy.

Many workplaces take great pains to give employees performance goals to clearly show them what they are expected to do. But we must make equally sure to show employees why their work matters and how it makes a positive difference.

US online retailer Zappos are a great example of this. Whereas most customer service reps are measured on how many calls/emails they handle, Zappos’ employees are measured primarily on how happy they make their customers. The former metric makes sense only to the company, the latter is meaningful for employees too because it shows them that they make a positive difference for the customers.

2: Autonomy

When you are free to do your job your way, you are much more likely to take pride in your results and feel good about them.

On the other hand, if a micro-managing boss is telling you exactly what to do, how to do it and when to do it, you are much less likely to feel good about the results you get, because they won’t be your results.

As much as possible, we should be free to choose:

  • What we work on
  • Who we work with
  • What approaches and methods to use
  • When and where we work

One of my favorite examples of this is Middelfart Savings Bank in Denmark, one of the happiest workplaces in Europe. How did they achieve that? They gave their employees huge levels of freedom and responsibility. Their former HR directors said this:

“You’d be amazed what happens once people are empowered to make decisions.”

Another amazing example comes from the US Navy, where nuclear submarine captain David Marquet gave his sailors unprecedented autonomy. He explained how he did it at our conference in 2015:

3: Appreciation

And finally, we feel good about the work we do when we are recognized for it.

Harvard Business School professors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer talk about this in their awesome book The Progress Principle. They sum up the book’s main message like this:

Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.

Even a small win can make all the difference in how people feel and perform.

Creating a culture of positive feedback in an organization is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to give employees a feeling of results.

When your coworkers, your boss or even the customers praise your good work, it clearly shows that you make a difference and get great results.

On the other hand, if you feel you do good work but nobody ever notices, it becomes much harder to maintain pride in your work. Some companies even take it a step further – they never praise good work, but all mistakes are instantly and severely punished.

Our absolute favorite way to praise others at work is The Poncho. Try it!

The upshot

It’s not enough to help employees get great results – we must help them get a feeling of results.

Of course we first need them to do good work. No one should expect to feel good about their work, if they’re not doing a very good job in the first place.

But that’s not enough.

Happiness at work only comes when people know that their work has meaning and purpose, when they have freedom and autonomy in how they work and when they are appreciated and recognized for their good work.

Imagine the opposite. Imagine that you’re very good at your job and get great results. But you have no idea why any of your tasks matter, somebody else has decided how you work on those tasks leaving you no freedom and autonomy and you are never recognized for any of your efforts.

How happy could you be at work under those conditions? How good would your results be in the long run? How soon would you lose all motivation and burn out?

So improving how people feel about their results is crucial.

It’s also a lot easier. Provided a person is very good at their job already, improving their feeling of results may be a lot faster and easier than improving their actual results.

It’s also a lot more effective, because if we can’t figure out how to make people feel proud and appreciated about their work, it doesn’t matter how stellar their results are – they will never be happy at work and their performance will ultimately suffer.

Related posts

Watch the 5 best speeches ever from our conferences on happiness at work

For the last 8 years we have arranged an annual conference on happiness at work in Copenhagen. The next one is on May 18+19 2017 and for the first time ever we’re making the conference international, so the whole event will be in English.

We want to show you just how energetic, fun and valuable this conference is, so here are five of our favorite speeches from previous years.

David Marquet (2013): Happiness at work on a nuclear submarine

When David Marquet took command of the nuclear submarine the USS Santa Fe, he knew he needed to change a lot of things. It was the worst performing submarine, was never ready for its missions on time and was basically the laughing stock of the US navy.

David came in with a plan to improve the results on the submarine and thereby make its crew happier. By accident, he found that he had to do it the other way around: Make the submarine a happy workplace and results would follow.

The new plan worked, and the USS Santa Fe became the best performing submarine.

In this speech from our 2013 conference, David Marquet explains how he did it and how you can create a happier workplace too.

Srikumar Rao (2009): The two traps that keep us from being happy

One of the highlights of our 2009 conference on happiness at work in Copenhagen was Dr. Srikumar S. Rao’s wonderfully inspiring and funny presentation.

His presentation focused specifically on two traps you must avoid, that keep us from becoming happy.

Dr. Rao is the man behind the pioneering course Creativity and Personal Mastery, the only business school course that has its own alumni association and it has been extensively covered in the media including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the London Times, the Independent, Time, the Financial Times, Fortune, the Guardian, Business Week and dozens of other publications.

The Free Help Guy (2015): Happiness is… helping others.

The Free Help Guy has devoted a large part of his life to helping others – free and anonymously.

He believes in doing what you can for others, that value doesn’t look like coins and notes and that for every problem there is at least one solution.

He also believes in anonymity rather than self promotion and in living by your beliefs, which is why you can’t see his face in the video.

In this inspiring speech, he shares his story. Read more at

 Steve Shapiro (2011): Personality Poker

Does your organization help every single employee know their strong sides AND apply them more at work? Do people know and respect their coworkers’ personalities and preferences? Do you know what makes your coworkers happy or unhappy at work?

Steve Shapiro, the author of 24/7 Innovation and Best Practices Are Stupid takes participants at our 2011 conference through a game of Personality Poker, showing the 4 main personalities at work and what makes each of them happy or unhappy.

Henry Stewart (2016): 3 advanced tips for creating a happy workplace

Henry Stewart is the founder of Happy, a company in London that does computer and happiness trainings. They are also (naturally) a very happy workplace.

In this speech, Henry shares 3 advanced tips for creating a happy workplace:

  • Let employees choose their boss
  • Give pre-approval on big projects
  • Let employees set their own goals

Bonus video: The world’s happiest DJ (2015)

This isn’t a speech as such but it is one of our favorite moments from the conferences.

This is a German DJ who became famous on youtube a few years ago for being incredibly happy while playing. He used that as a springboard to quit the day job that he hated and become a full-time DJ.

In this video from our 2015 conference he plays a very short set and then shares his story.

Meet a man who had the courage to go his own way and became world famous for being happy at work.

Does all of that look interesting? Then join us in Copenhagen on May18+19 for our first ever INTERNATIONAL conference on happiness at work.

3 reasons why leaders should recognize effort instead of results

Here’s a thought experiment for you: Imagine two sales people working for the same company but in different regions.

Johnson slaves away in her area. She does a great job, she’s a professional and accomplished sales rep and she’s always ready to help her clients and colleagues. However, due to circumstances beyond her control she doesn’t reach her sales target this quarter. Maybe her biggest account goes bankrupt or maybe there’s just less economic activity in her region.

Smith, on the other hand, is lazy. He is not very competent and he never bothers to go the extra mile to help his colleagues or his clients. But due to circumstances beyond his control he achieves his sales target nonetheless that quarter. Maybe a big order drops in completely by chance, or maybe the growth in his region is increasing, or maybe his sales target just wasn’t ambitious enough from the start.

Which of the two deserves praise and recognition? Johnson, who does a great job, but performs below target or lazy Smith, who just got lucky this budget year?

To me it’s pretty obvious that it’s both better, more fair and more helpful to the future results of the company to acknowledge and reward the employees who have delivered the bigger effort.

And of course most companies do the opposite and reward only results, partly because results are easier to measure, but also because of we have a systematic bias for underestimating the ‘luck’-factor.

Daniel Kahneman is the only psychologist who’s been awarded a Nobel Prize. However he won it in economics, since there is no Nobel Prize in psychology. He got the prize for his work with identifying how humans make decisions and founding the field of behavioral economics.

One of the intriguing results of his research is that we highly underestimate the impact that luck has in many situations, and we massively overestimate the effects of our own actions. Good results are often due to luck (at least in part), but we choose to take credit for them anyway.

It’s extremely demotivating to those employees who have made an extra effort but don’t get recognition for it, to stand by and see their less competent (but luckier) colleagues receive both accolades and financial rewards.

Some companies try to solve the problem by creating more complicated bonus structures, but that’s rarely a good solution. Experience shows that bonus schemes are either so simple that they’re almost sure to be unfair to somebody, or so complicated that no one can make heads or tails of them. The study also shows that bonus schemes and rewards on the whole lead to poorer results, less motivation and inferior efforts. I’ve blogged about this before in this column.

To me the solution is simple: Leaders must focus just more on the effort of employees than on just their results. We must recognize not only those who reach their goals, but especially those who do an amazing job and even more so those who help others to become better at their job.

One great example if this is the New York-based company Next Jump. Their most important and prestigious employee award is not given based on performance but based on who helps others the most. In this video you can see their 2014 awards ceremony:

It’s not so straightforward, as results tend to be more measurable and visible. Encouraging a great effort will require that we as leaders have more insight and show more interest in our employees’ daily work. However there are three good reasons why we should do it anyway, even if it’s more demanding on us.

Effort is not reliant on luck
While good results may be due to luck, great effort is always due to the employee’s talents and attitude – and those employees who consistently demonstrate and improve skills, should clearly be recognized and celebrated.

A strong effort will – in the long run – always lead to better results
It’s no good if we only optimize for this quarterly result. We are optimizing for the next 20 or 30 quarterly results.

We avoid suboptimization
If we only recognize the employee’s results, we’re creating a culture in which we’ll do anything to obtain results – instead of doing what’s right for the clients and for the long term targets of the company. If I only get rewards for achieving my own sales targets, why on earth should I spend time and effort helping my colleagues?

The upshot

So leaders must encourage and acknowledge effort rather than results. In the long run it will create more fairness, more motivation and – ironically – better results.

Your take

What is valued most in your workplace – results or efforts? What does that approach do for your motivation and engagement? How has it affected you and your coworkers?

Write a comment – we’d love to hear your take.

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Book review: Payoff by Dan Ariely


Payoff, The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations, is a short book with an important message: “We suck at motivation.”

Based on fascinating research from workplaces and psychology labs  all over the world, the book documents how we consistently fail to understand what really motivates ourselves and others and consequently end up  killing motivation off, when we try to strengthen it, much of the time.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the workplace, where a blind belief in the power of bonuses, raises, promotions and perks has kept managers doing the wrong things for (or to) their employees for decades.

Dan Ariely, a professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, is the perfect person to convey this message. As a researcher he has conducted fascinating and very elegant experiments to uncover what motivates and demotivates us. He shared two of these in this TED talk:

In Payoff he uses his own research and that of others to get to the truth of motivation. And while he clearly shows that performance bonuses can actually reduce performance, he also shares the factors that motivate us to do better. These include things like praise, meaningful work and a real connection to the people you work with.

This is a short book (120 pages) but that just counts in its favor, in my opinion. It is a captivating read, incredibly useful and highly entertaining – in fact I laughed our loud several times while reading it.

In short, I hope I have motivated you to read this book :)

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