When thinking about workplace motivation, we think about motivators like money, responsibility, and promotions. Those aspects play a role, but there are far simpler tools we can use as well. One tool is just acknowledging hard work and saying “Thank you.”
In Payoff, Dan Arielly describes an experimental condition that illustrated this. Participants were presented with a sheet of paper full of random letters and asked to circle identical pairs of letters that appeared next to one another. Simple enough. When the participant turned in their assignment to the experimenter, they were paid $0.55. The experimenter then asked if they would be willing to complete a second sheet for 5 cents less. This continued until the money was eventually not worth the effort.
Now, imagine three experimental conditions. In the first group called the “Acknowledged” group, participants were asked to put their name in the top left corner of the sheet. When turned in their sheets, the experimenter looked at the sheet carefully, said “uh huh,” and put the sheet facedown on the desk.
The second condition was the “Ignored” group. Participants didn’t put their name on the paper. When they turned in their paper, the experimenter just placed it facedown on the desk without looking at it.
The “Shredded” group was the most extreme. Participants didn’t put their name on the paper. When they turned it in, the experimenter didn’t even look at it before putting it through a shredder.
You can guess which group worked the longest (Acknowledged), but which group completed the fewest sheets of paper?
The results showed that the “Shredded” and “Ignored” groups were nearly identical. The Acknowledged group worked until the payment was down around $0.15. The other groups stopped at roughly $0.27.
This suggests that if you really want to demotivate people, “shredding” their work is the way to go, but that you can get almost all the way there simply by ignoring their efforts. Acknowledgement is a kind of human magic—a small human connection, a gift from one person to another that translates into a much larger, more meaningful outcome.
Acknowledgement and outward appreciation are free ways to increase motivation on your team. Saying “Thank you”—being specific about the action you’re thankful for and the positive result it had on the team—makes a huge impact in the long run.