Thoughts On How To Motivate Employees Doing Mechanical Tasks


f-then planning is a great way to set and achieve goals when talking about life goals or goals for mechanical tasks. We’re neurologically hard-wired to make if-then connections, so it’s a very powerful trigger.

The definitive example of the power of if-then goal setting is the Glucksberg variation of the candle problem. If you’re at all familiar with the candle problem you’ll know that you’re presented with a candle, a box of matches and a box of thumb-tacks and asked to attach the candle to the wall in a way that it doesn’t drip and wax onto the table below it:

This cognitive performance test is designed to measure the influence of your functional fixedness on your problem solving abilities. Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that limits a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used. The challenge is to overcome your functional fixedness; in this case seeing the box the thumb-tacks come in as only a receptacle. Once you see past that you realise that it also has a function as a platform for the candle and can solve the problem, like so:

The Filled Boxes Condition

Glucksberg, in 1962, divided subjects into two groups; low-drive and high-drive. The group termed low-drive were told that they were participating in pilot work and that their performance would set the norms for the time needed to solve the problem. The group termed high-drive were told that depending on how quickly they solved the problem they would win a reward; the fastest 25% would all win $5.00 each and the fastest of all would win $20.00. (Adjusting for inflation the prizes would respectively be around $40 and $160 today.)

Now this sounds awfully familiar doesn’t it? In business today employees are motivated to perform better with bonuses and commissions. Pretty much every boss or manager I’ve ever worked under has boiled it down to “if you sell this much, you’ll get that much extra” effectively putting into place the if-then conditioning.

So how much faster did the high-drive, the if-then, group solve the problem? It took them on average 3,5 minutes longer to find the solution. But wait a minute, you say, we’ve got an incentive system specifically designed to sharpen thinking and accelerate creativity, so why is it doing the opposite?

Dan Pink said that contingent motivators – if you do this, then you get that – work for a lot of tasks, but in most cases, it either doesn’t work at all or in fact does harm. When you’ve got a simple set of rules that take you to a clear destination contingent motivators work wonderfully because, by their very nature, rewards narrow our focus and concentrate the mind.

The Empty Boxes Condition

Glucksberg repeated the candle test with a small twist; the tacs were out of the box. This time the high-drive group easily outperformed the low-drive group. Why? Because when the tacs are out of the box the answer is plainer to see – the box is more easily seen as a functional component rather than just a passive receptacle for the tacs. A simple set of rules with a clear goal. Let me repeat; a simple set of rules with a clear goal.

So what am I griping about? When solving the real candle problem you don’t want to narrow your mind. In real life, as in the real candle problem, the solution is most often found in the periphery. You need to be able to think creatively to think outside the box and you want to keep an open mind to find the best solution(s).

Cognitive Problems Require Cognitive Solutions

With the routine, rule-based, mechanical tasks easily outsourced today most people face their own version of the real candle problem – problems that require more creative, conceptual thinking.

“As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance. But once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill a larger reward led to poorer performance.”

– Dan Ariely et al, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Working Paper No. 05-11, July 2005; NY Times, 20 Nov. 08

Think of your own work; what kind of problems do you face? Are they the kind with a simple set of rules and a single correct outcome? Or do you face a lot of problems where the rules are unclear at best and the outcome often surprising and non-obvious?

I’m going to say that a lot of us face problems that are a mix of these two – problems with elements of both. But the fact remains that we do need – or at least would greatly benefit from – more creative, out-of-the-box thinking. So what to do then, when the job requires a lot of mechanical tasks that can’t be ignored? How do you get your employees to be more creative and to think out-of-the-box?

20 Percent Time

Maybe here we can take a page from Google’s book and try 20 Percent Time. 80% of the time is spent on the necessary – possibly mechanical, possibly cognitive, probably both kinds of work – and 20% on whatever you want.

What we need to remember is that management is a man-made thing, it didn’t emanate from nature. You won’t find “manager hens” directing the escape patterns of “worker hens” when the fox comes to the coop; it’s all hens for themselves when it’s go-time. Neither will you find the rain telling a tree “if you grow by 20% this year, I’ll give you 5 liters more water a day”.

Management was created for a purpose and it works just dandy when what you want to achieve is compliance from your employees. But when you want engagement and all the goodies that come with it – healthier, happier, more satisfied, better performing, more productive, more creative employees – self-direction works much, much better.

The Middle Ground

So we can’t all be Google and maybe you can’t afford to let your employees go off 20% of the time and do what they want. But what we can do is to structure at least 20% of the work time in a more cognitive manner. Do something to feed their souls, get them excited.

One great idea that I recently heard taking place in an office was 15-minute presentations. Once a week a member of the team gets to do a 15-minute presentation on whatever they want to for the rest of the team. The presentations cover everything from the importance of art in our lives to how to have a learning mindset. And the employees love it! They put a real effort into their 15 minutes and the presentations generally spark lasting topics of conversation, they feel more bonded as a team and get to know something about each other that might not come up in their usual day-to-day work conversations.

15 minutes isn’t even 20% of the work time, but it’s enough to let your imagination wander a little and the excitement that inspiration brings is seriously contagious. Even if you let your employees have whole 20% of the time to work on what it is that they want to pursue, you’ll most likely end up benefiting from it as an employer -after all, about half of the new products in a year at Google, are created during 20 percent time.

I’d also bet that if you help your employees work in a more creative way for some of the time you will see that the habit will seep into the rest 80% of the time. Pretty soon you will find that your company has naturally evolved into something resembling a lean production model and that never hurts when you’re looking to make the most of your given resources.

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