Buried in praise: motivating your best people

In his book Payoff, behavioral economist Dan Ariely recounts an experiment designed to measure motivation. Participants were asked to perform a meaningless task, circling pairs of matched letters on randomly generated sheets of paper. When they were finished, they returned their paper and were given 55 cents. Each time, they were offered a smaller amount to complete another sheet until they declined to continue. The goal was to see how small the pay could go before participants decided that it was no longer worth their time. But, that wasn’t the real experiment.


What motivates someone to endure?

What participants didn’t know is that they were divided into three groups. The first group was asked to write their names on each paper, and the person running the experiment spent a few seconds looking over their completed sheets before placing them face down on a pile and asking if they wanted to do another. The second group did not write their names, and their sheets were not reviewed but simply placed on the pile without acknowledgment. The third group was treated like the second, except the pile was replaced with a shredder, and their pages were destroyed immediately without a word.


A purely logical assessment would favor the third group to go the farthest; after all, once they realized there was no way to prove they really did the work, they could “complete” sheets at a much faster rate, increasing the value of each sheet relative to their time. But we all know that’s not what happened. People are not purely logical. Anyone could correctly guess that the first group went the longest, but it’s the gaps between the groups that tell a story that leaders can learn from.


The Real Story

The first group predictably hung in the longest, making it down to an average of 15 cents before quitting. The group that got shredded gave up the most quickly, quitting at 29 cents. No surprise there. But the real story is the middle group. They quit at an average of 27.5 cents. Let that sink in for a moment. The spread was not remotely even. There was only a 1.5 cent difference between not acknowledging a person’s work and openly destroying it in front of their eyes.


Some of our most faithful volunteers and employees can fade into the background because they do their jobs well and do not create problems. It’s very easy to consider an issue dealt with and to forget the effort put in on a daily basis. No one ignores their best people on purpose, but ministry is an ever-shifting terrain, and problems tend to dominate our attention, robbing those who steadily work to move us forward.


Acknowledging the Overlooked

Creating a culture of thankfulness is not easy, because something urgent will always grab our attention. Without a policy driven toward actively thanking people, they will fall through the cracks without acknowledgment and eventually fall away. So get proactive. Make a schedule to thank your people, and make sure it’s set up so nobody gets skipped for too long. When you thank them, do it in the following ways:


1 – Make it personal. Write a note by hand, mail it with a stamp, and show them that you took real time to thank them. Don’t just drop them a “thanks” on social media or a quick text. They are worth your time and need to know it.

2 – Make it specific. Don’t just thank them for their help. Thank them for a specific area in which they’ve really stepped up and describe the different that they’ve made in advancing the overall vision that they support. The more specific, the more they will feel visible.

3 – Make it valuable. If someone has really gone out of their way, do the same. Try to know your people and know what would really communicate value to them. A good step to get started is to grab a pack of Starbucks cards. You don’t need to throw a gift into every thankful note, but if people receive a token of value once or twice a year, you’ll get much more value in return.


If what I’ve just suggested sounds mechanical or manipulative, go with me on this. Creating a system of thankfulness speaks to the importance of thankfulness. If you don’t have a system for thanking people, it won’t happen, and you’ll miss people. I’m sure that you have reminder systems for other important items. Put thankfulness on that list.

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