One Word That Turns Work into Play


Photo via stanford.eduSurprising new research shows that introducing one word into the conversation can change how people feel about their work and significantly impact effort and outcomes.

Most of us are part of teams. We group ourselves in companies, departments, projects, and various other ways. And, even when there’s no formal team, our individual work is very often part of a collective effort. Despite this, most tasks involve primarily solo work by individual members.

Motivate from Within

The Holy Grail of managers and team builders is intrinsic motivation, which comes from within the individual. Leaders can create extrinsic, or external, motivation with rewards, deadlines, praise, and a variety of other tools, but these are rarely as effective as the individual wanting to do the work and help the team.

Indeed, with enough intrinsic motivation work becomes, in effect, “play.” We are so engaged by what we are doing that we keep doing it, regardless of specific rewards. We don’t watch the clock or seek out distractions because we want to do what we are doing.

A study by Stanford researchers Priyanka Carr and Gregory Walton had subjects work on solving problems individually under several conditions.

Carr and Walton found one action that changed behavior in a major way: communicating that the individual subject would be working “together” with others, vs. letting subjects think they were working alone. Even though the work and environment were the same, and the work was being done in a solo manner, Stanford reports that the “together” subjects,

  • Persisted 48 to 64 percent longer on a challenging task
  • Reported more interest in the task
  • Became less tired by having to persist on the task – presumably because they enjoyed it
  • Became more engrossed in the task and performed better on it

According to Walton,

“Our research found that social cues that conveyed simply that other people treat you as though you are working together on a task – rather than that you are just as working on the same task but separately – can have striking effects on motivation.” [Emphasis added.]

“Together” FTW!

Could motivation be this simple? Instead of designing complex reward systems, can we just emphasize that even solo work is part of a collective effort by adding the word “together” to briefings?

I’d answer that with, “partially.” In a business setting, you still need to have the essentials, like appropriate compensation, a positive environment, effective feedback, and so on. But, within that framework, this research suggests that emphasizing the shared nature of the effort could pay big dividends in motivation.

The good news is that the “together” strategy is free. If team leaders and managers simply adjust their communications (and ensure that reality doesn’t contradict their message), individual motivation and performance will improve.

So, let’s give it a try. Next time you are meeting with a team member, be sure to emphasize the collaborative and collective nature of the work – you should see that person’s attitude and motivation improve. Together, we can do this!

  1. Michael says

    People want to be part of a joint effort. From your brief description, it would appear the behavior data collected was over a short time period. Would be interesting to observe if the “interest” and “performance” was sustained over a longer period of time. There are a number of strategies that can be used for short-term change. I suspect for this strategy to sustain over time, the staff would have to be reminded of the joint effort and actually see how their efforts positively impacted others and vice versa.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I’m sure you are right, Michael. Producing a short-term boost of motivation won’t work in the long run by itself. That’s particularly true if actual evidence contradicts the “teamwork” aspect, i.e., the boss takes credit for the work of others, etc. But, as you suggest, frequent reminders (including concrete examples) should keep the momentum going.

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