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The critical role of acknowledgement in maintaining our motivation

We are living in an increasingly fast-paced world. Personally and professionally, our schedules are filled to the max. In our offices, we are so consumed with working through the seemingly never-ending volume of work that we can forget to even acknowledge people walking by.

Some intriguing research conducted by Dan Ariely and his colleagues (Emir Kamenica and Drazen Prelec) highlights how powerful and important a simple gesture of acknowledgement can be in terms of our level of engagement and perseverance. They orchestrated a study to examine our willingness to work on a task, depending on the extent to which it was recognized by another party.

To test this idea, Ariely and his team paid participants to complete a simple, repetitive task. Each individual was given a sheet of paper with sequences of letters. Their job was to find ten examples where two consecutive letters (e.g., “gg”) appeared in the text. Each sheet completed by the participant needed to be handed to the experimenter to receive their remuneration. The payment schedule was on a sliding scale, however, such that each subsequent sheet completed received a lower amount of money. The primary question of interest for the researchers was to see how long people would engage in this task.

Although everyone received the same instructions, they were placed into one of three groups. In the first, when participants submitted their sheets for payment, the experimenter would look up and then quickly scan their answers before filing them away (e.g., Acknowledged). In another group, the experimenters just took the paper and immediately filed it without reviewing the work (e.g., Ignored). In the last condition, the experimenter would take the completed form without looking at it and immediately put it through the shredder (e.g., Shredder).

As one would expect the researchers were keenly interested to learn what impact, if any, these manipulations had on the willingness of the participants to continue. The results were striking. When comparing the three conditions, those in the Acknowledged condition persevered significantly longer, completing over one-third more sheets of paper in the task than those in the Ignored or Shredder conditions.

Interestingly, there was no difference between the completion rates for the Ignored and Shredder groups.

These findings demonstrate the sheer power of acknowledgement when it comes to our work. It is important to point out that the researchers did not do an in depth analysis of the accuracy or quality of the work. It was simply a matter of recognizing the work. Despite the repetitive, and some might say boring, nature of the task, the impact of acknowledgement on the motivation of the participants was profound.

Another important point to be made about these results is that the Shredder condition provided an optimal opportunity to make money with minimal/no effort. Specifically, since the research team was not checking their answers, the participants could simply return to their chairs, wait a brief amount of time and technically hand in a blank sheet of paper. Nobody would know if they even attempted to complete the exercise, since their ‘results’ were promptly destroyed.

Finally, it is critical to highlight the lack of difference between the Ignored and Shredded conditions. Essentially, ignoring the work of someone else has the same impact as prompting putting it in a shredder.

For executives and for organizations, this research has important implications for how we motivate and engage each other:

1) Leaders should be aware that our constant state of ‘busyness’ may make us prone to forget the little things, as we may not look up and even make eye contact when someone brings a file into our office. This research suggests that such behaviours can be toxic when it comes to engaging the people around us. Simply lifting our heads up and making eye contact and perusing the file, even briefly, provides the acknowledgement boost we desperately desire. Better yet, say “thank you” and provide a smile. These non-verbal gestures are invaluable when it comes to maximizing performance.

2) Employees can also benefit from the above findings. Taking the time to acknowledge the work of the people around us can positively impact their level of motivation. Creating a culture of ‘paying it forward’ may spur a mutually reinforcing cycle of motivation, which can drive us to reach new heights and persevere, especially in challenging times.

3) Organizations can sometimes engage in activities/projects that are viewed as pointless. Individuals may feel as though they are engaging in “busy work” that will neither be recognized nor is relevant to the goals of the organization. If the work is not acknowledged in some way, it can seriously undermine future engagement. It also may have the additional and unwanted side effect of creating a culture of cynicism for future initiatives that do provide considerable value. Therefore, it is important that organizations recognize the work being done and its impact on the company’s goals.

Maximizing engagement is of paramount importance, particularly in today’s increasing competitive and high-stress environment. Most of us are in a race against time, rarely taking a moment to take in the world around us. Heads down, we power through our ‘to-do’ lists, which replenish themselves each day.

As technology wires us to our work and the wider world around us, we still need personal acknowledgement to feel as though we are truly connected to those with whom we interact. Paying attention to the work and efforts of our colleagues not only provides us with much-needed human connection, it can also heighten their motivation and perseverance. The effort required to recognize and acknowledge others is minimal, and the benefits that an organization can realize make it well worth it.

In the spirit of acknowledgement, I would like to thank you for taking the time to read this column. I would very much welcome your feedback and any experiences you would like to share.

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