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The Leader's Playbook™


What Motivates, What Doesn't,

and Everything in Between

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This Month's Focus:

Injecting a Little Levity into Your Company's Sick Leave Policy




              Find past months' motivation features here.

    What do a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and a matchbook have to do with motivation?

    Let’s try an experiment.  Suppose I bring you into a room and give you the following items:  A candle, a matchbook, and a box of thumbtacks (see A below).


    Then I said to you:  “Your job is to attach the candle to the wall so that the candle doesn’t drip wax on the floor as it burns.  Most people would try something like melting the side of the candle so that it would stick to the wall—that won’t work.  Some would try to “pin” the candle to the wall—that won’t work either, though it’s a pretty good idea.  Some of us might eventually give up, calling the experiment “silly.” But most of us with a sufficient amount of time would figure out the solution.  It looks something like (see figure below):


    Now, let’s try the experiment* with two new groups of people, Group 1 and Group 2.  To Group 1, I say, “Your job is to attach the candle to the wall so that the candle doesn’t drip wax on the floor as it burns.  And, I’m going to time you to pre-established norms for solving the problem.  If you finish within the top 25% of established times I’ll pay you $50.  If you finish within the top 50% of established times I’ll pay you $25.  To Group 2, I say the same thing, except there is no offer of rewards. 

    Which group would you think would correctly solve the problem faster?  Most people would think Group 1 would solve it faster.  Wrong!  This actual experiment was conducted and repeated over and over again with similar results:  The group with no monetary rewards offered to it solved the problem on average three and a half minutes faster than the group with the promise of rewards.  Why?

    What we’ve learned is that when tangible rewards like money are offered for work, or effort, or results, they serve as distractions—people’s attention is drawn away from the problem to be solved or the task to be performed and toward the reward itself.  They lose focus on the task.  Their minds become overly occupied with the reward.

    This finding flies in the face of what business has come to believe as the way things are done:  If you do this, you get that.  The This is a task, a result, something than can best be called work.  The That is a reward, something tangible, like money, candy bars, vacations, free trips, bonuses, the corner office.   Somehow, somewhere along the way, we’ve gotten this whole concept of motivation terribly wrong. 

    What’s emerged from experiments like this is a new way of thinking about what motivates people and it has everything to do with getting them interested, even excited by the work itself.  Imagine what can be possible when people are valued for the work they produce, believe it’s important and meaningful, and celebrate when they’ve achieved breakthroughs.  The possibilities are endless.

    What can leaders do about this?

    ·         Create meaningful, important work for your followers whenever possible.  Connect the dots for them to make sure they see why what they’re doing is important.

    ·         Encourage them to think.  Even the most inexperienced people have something to contribute if they’re involved.  Note:  See this month’s recommended selection:  “Moneyball.”  Peter Brand, one of the brains behind the Oakland A’s phenomenal success as a baseball team was a 22-year-old economist who never played baseball. 

    ·         Communicate to your followers just how important they are to the organization’s success.  This can’t happen too frequently. 

    *This experiment, created by a researcher named Sam Glucksberg at Princeton, has been repeated with consistent results for decades. 

    We thought we'd inject some levity into this month's issue of The Leader's Playbook.  So, with our tongues firmly in our cheeks, we offer some suggestions for inclusion in your company's sick leave policy:

    Sickness:  We will no longer accept your doctor's statement as proof you were sick.  We believe that if you are able to go to the doctor, you are able to come to work.

    Surgery:  We are no longer allowing this practice.  We wish to discourage any thoughts that you may need an operation.  We believe that as long as you are an employee here, you will need all that you may have and should not consider having anything removed. We hired you as you are, and to have anything removed would certainly make you less than we bargained for when we brought you on board with us.

    Death:  Other than your own, this is no excuse for missing work.  There is nothing you can do for the departed, and we are sure that someone else can attend to the arrangements.  However, if the funeral can be held in the late afternoon, we will be glad to allow you to work through your lunch hour and subsequently let you leave one hour early, provided your share of work is ahead enough to keep the job going in your absence.

    Exception to the above:  Your own death.  This is an acceptable excuse for missing work.  However, we require at least two weeks' notice to allow for training of your replacement.

    Miscellaneous:  Entirely too much time is being spent in the restroom.  In the future, we will follow the practice of going in alphabetical order.  For instance, those whose names begin with an "A" will go from 8:00-8:15, and so on.  If you're unable to go at your time, it will be necessary to wait until the next day when your time comes again.

    We appreciate your cooperation.


    Definition:  Candy Bar:  Anything used as a reward for doing something that a leader directs someone to do.  Example:  "If you finish the report by noon today, I'll let you leave early." 

    Handing out "Candy Bars"  is common.  The question is, How many candy bars'do you have to hand out?  Eventually, we run out of candy bars.  What happens then? 

    Rewards (candy bars, cash, gifts, etc.) are often misunderstood.  Leaders sometimes believe that by handing out candy bars they are motivating their followers to perform.  Very often, using candy bars has a de-motivating effect.  People tend to become "conditioned" to expect candy bars, and when they don't get them when they believe they've earned them or because they once got them for something, they become less motivated to perform.  

    Effective leaders understand that people will deliver long-lasting, sustained performance because they believe their leader trusts them, believes in them, and has their interests in mind, not because they will be given a candy bar. 

    To learn more about leading people call The Leader's Playbook at (504) 837-4577

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