Dan Ariely’s new book, The Upside of Irrationality, is full of stuff about employee motivation that we consultants take for granted.  The beauty of the book is that it gives us the research behind the trends, complete with entertaining accounts of Ariely’s experiments.  I’m sure I’ll be quoting Ariely and telling stories of his research in my classes for years to come.

For example, Ariely conducts a series of experiments to see if large rewards really do motivate people to perform better.  Three groups are tested in their ability to complete a series of tasks: one group is offered a small reward, one group a medium reward, and the third group a very large reward.  In the third group, participants freeze up under the pressure of losing their potential reward and actually perform worse than the other two groups.  What does this say about our practice of giving huge bonuses to executives at the end of the year?  Ariely’s conclusion is that we should offer smaller and more frequent bonuses to employees to eliminate non-productive stress.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the chapter on adaptation.  Ariely and his colleagues run a series of tests to explore the common notion that we should take a break from things we hate doing, and do things we enjoy in an uninterrupted manner.  What they find is that because of the amazing ability of human beings to adapt to circumstances, even terrible ones like great physical pain, it makes more sense to do the opposite–complete tasks you hate, like doing your taxes or cleaning the house, in one shot in order to reap the benefits of adaptation.  But when you go for a massage or eat chocolate-covered cherries, take frequent breaks so that you get frequent, renewed bursts of pleasure rather than getting used to the sensation and no longer enjoying it as much.  The lesson, Ariely says, is to “slow down pleasure.”

I’ve been applying this concept to my work ever since.  When doing something I hate, like administrative work, I try to get it done quickly in one shot.  Things I enjoy, like developing a new program, I schedule in intervals.  There’s something to be said for not interrupting activities that may put you in a state of “flow”, of course, but I also notice that spacing out the work I enjoy gives me more to look forward to on a daily basis.

From an employer’s perspective, I would think the lesson is to sprinkle your employee luncheons, company celebrations and praise for good work at intervals (and more frequently) throughout the year.  More importantly, perhaps, teach your employees the principle of adaptation and explain why it means that it’s better not to keep taking breaks from whatever it is that you hate doing in your daily routine.

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