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Surprising team motivation tricks backed by science

Collaboration & Team Management Inspiration & Motivation

Finding a source of motivation isn’t always easy. If it was, everyone would go to the gym five times a week and have finished that do-it-yourself home renovation they never got around to starting.

It’s the same in the business world. Not all projects are equally exciting, causing team members to look to each other for motivation to finish the job. If common incentives aren’t working, it’s time to try something different. Luckily, there are little-known and surprisingly-effective motivational tricks that any workplace can use.

Never praise ability over effort

Whether he or she is junior or just a new recruit, many teams have inexperienced members. Surrounded by talented teammates, it can be hard for these members to stay motivated instead of questioning their roles. This is why adult education professor Richard Clark says the most inexperienced person often has the most difficultly self-motivating, which can hurt the entire group.

It’s natural for experienced people to lend a helping hand, especially if they see potential for improvement. But what’s the best way to give feedback?

Always constructively criticize effort, not ability. If performance is solely linked to ability, improvement is discouraged. Why would someone give their best effort if they lack the natural talent needed to succeed? On the other hand, attributing strong performance to sheer effort encourages inexperienced team members to further apply themselves. Effort is a clear path to success.

The same can be said when these people don’t progress. Instead of questioning their abilities – and legitimizing the idea that hard work won’t lead to improvement – tell them they need to buckle down and concentrate. By doing so, the novice team member will gradually gain the experience they need to thrive.

Frame a team picture

How many workplaces proudly display a framed picture with every employee – CEO and all – on the wall?

Though the tactic is uncommon, the logic for doing so is clear: to make people feel like a part of a team. The scientific benefit of a team mentality is just as clear: it gives people a constant source of motivation. Sociologists and business scholars alike have noted that people are driven to work for recognition and positive feedback from peers and superiors in their team. This drive is linked to dedication, better performance and, in many cases, happier work days.

A team picture plays a powerful role in creating this mentality. By placing it in a visible spot, it serves as a regular reminder that an individual belongs to something greater than a mere collection of cubicles on an office floor.

Evaluate people, not projects

What happens when two people play tug-of-war? They each try their hardest to best one another. But when more people join the contest, each person invests less effort by relying on team members. Often, participants don’t even know they relax in group situations.

This concept is called “social loafing.” It’s why some leaders avoid team tasks, electing to delegate separate parts of a large project to individuals who work alone. But as many people know, working as a team can be essential in certain situations. How, then, can we avoid social loafing and motivate teams?

Fortunately, German social psychologist Rolf van Dick answered this question almost 15 years ago. Unfortunately, the surprisingly simple solution isn’t regularly practiced. Pay less attention to the team’s collective effort and recognize individual performance. Each team member must know the manager will accurately and fairly assess his or her unique contributions. This emphasizes the importance of each role. People won’t completely depend on each other and will instead give the best effort they can to ensure the group project – especially their part – is a success.

Don’t use money as a motivation trick

Motivating with money is a common practice in many work environments. Consider how many offices offer a bonus or commission for completing tasks. It’s no secret that people welcome the chance to make some extra cash. But simple science says it’s also not a secret that financial rewards can stifle the creative process.

Psychologist Sam Glucksberg illustrated a clear example of how this happens. He assembled small teams to solve what he called the “candle problem.” He told groups to stick a candle to a wall in a way that would prevent wax from dripping on the floor. Along with the candle, they received matches and a box of thumbtacks. The solution can take about 10 minutes to reach, but is straightforward: empty the box, place the candle inside and use thumbtacks to stick it to the wall.

He added a twist, though. He motivated one group with a sum of money that lowered as it took more time to solve the problem. The other group had no extra motivation. Which side had the quickest time? The one without financial incentive.

Monetary rewards can hinder creativity. Instead of thinking outside the box, people become overly-focused on adding numbers to their paycheques. When people don’t know they have the chance to make a few extra dollars, they can think clearly and explore more innovative ways to solve a challenge. Essentially, they feel less harmful pressure to perform well.

Glucksberg’s research isn’t new. His findings were published in 1962 and were based off a study completed more than 15 years earlier. Recent studies have replicated his results, too. But this doesn’t mean employers should stop offering bonuses. It just means they shouldn’t motivate their team with them.

What do you think of these team motivation tricks? Do you have any of your own? Share them in the comments below!

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