The power of acknowledging and the price of ignoring

acknowledgingMost people understand that providing positive reinforcement is a proven way to encourage a desired behavior. But perhaps we don’t fully appreciate how powerful the simple act of acknowledging someone’s effort impacts their willingness to work – and therefore their productivity.  A fascinating study sheds light on the connection between acknowledgment and intrinsic motivation.

Researchers conducted an experiment to determine if simply acknowledging a person’s effort could increase their motivation to perform more work1.  The results may cause you to reconsider how you interact with others for whom you provide leadership or direction.

The experiment was set up as follows:

A stack of papers was created where letters of the alphabet were placed in random order on each sheet of paper.  Participants were given a single sheet and instructed to find all the pairs of identical letters that were next to each other.

When the first paper was completed, they were paid 55 cents.  The participant was then asked if they wanted to complete the same assignment (finding adjacent pairs of letters) on another sheet of paper for 5 cents less.  This process continued until the participant declined to do any more work. There were three conditions set up in this experiment. Each is described below. Continue reading

Do you have a people problem or a situation problem?

attribution errorAs a manager, it is likely that some of the biggest challenges you face are those that you consider to be “people problems.”

[I will not be discussing any of the myriad of technical dilemmas of managers – those that are centered on manufacturing methods, research, product development, engineering, technology, logistics, etc].

In this post, I am referring to the kinds of problems where the character of the individual is perceived to be the main reason for a performance issue.  For example:

  • An employee fails to follow work instructions, which results in rework.
  • A worker is injured when she takes an unnecessary risk to get the job done.
  • A number of employees are perpetually late when submitting expense reports.
  • An employee’s timeliness in completing some assignments is unacceptable.
  • Supervisors do not spend enough time talking to their employees.

If you were faced with any of the challenges listed, what would you do? Many of us would engage the employee in some form of training, coaching, counseling, and/or expectation setting.   In other words, we assume that the behavior is largely determined by the individual’s character, personality, or mindset. Unfortunately, we frequently overlook the power of “situations” in determining someone’s behavior.

A number of years ago, Stanford psychologist Lee Ross conducted a literature review on a large number of studies in psychology.  He concluded that we have a tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people’s behavior. Ross referred to this tendency as the Fundamental Attribution Error.  We make this error when we attribute people’s behavior to the way they are (their character) rather than to the situation they are in (their environment).

Continue reading