Connecting with others is one of the most critical things we do in life. It makes sense then to be flexible in our approach to accomplish this communion.
Generally, in business and and in life, we value those that work hard, are resourceful and committed to persevering through obstacles. These traits provide confidence that we can stand shoulder to shoulder with another. We don’t, however, have to simply hope that we find individuals who display these traits. As leaders and partners, we motivate through these moments of connection. A friend at work recently shared with me a series of experiments by Dan Ariely, professor at Duke University, designed to better understand our motivations.
In a second experiment, participants assembled Bionicles, toy figurines made by Lego. The researchers made the Bionicle project somewhat meaningful for half of the students, whose completed toys were displayed on their desks for the duration of the experiment, while the students assembled as many Bionicles as they wished. “Even though this may not have been especially meaningful work, the students felt productive seeing all of those Bionicles lined up on the desk, and they kept on building them even when the pay was rather low,” Ariely said.The rest of the participants, whose work was intended to be devoid of meaning, gave their completed Bionicles to supervisors in exchange for another box of parts to assemble. The supervisors immediately disassembled the completed figurines, and returned the box of parts to the students when they were ready for the next round. “These poor individuals were assembling the same two Bionicles over and over. Every time they finished one, it was simply torn apart and given back to them later.”
“Adding to the evidence from the first experiment, this experiment also showed that meaning, even a very small meaning, can matter a lot,” Ariely said. Students who were allowed to collect their assembled Bionicles built an average of 10.2 figurines, while those whose work was disassembled built an average of 7.2. Students whose work was not meaningful required a median level of pay 40 percent higher than students whose work was meaningful.
This news isn’t surprising. Appreciation for work is one of the most powerful tools we have in our toolboxes. Additional experiments by Ariely confirmed that simply being ignored is almost as demotivating as having your work torn down in front of you. Inattentive or dismissive behavior is nearly as detrimental as affirmatively negative responses.The strongest leaders are aware of the power of acknowledgment and use it to their advantage, sometimes strategically, but always authentically.
Baseball is a game that requires a lot of repetition, oftentimes without immediate gratification. I can remember standing in a cage late at night, swinging until my calluses ripped and my hands bled in an attempt to “get right.” Taking thousands of rips or tracking countless pitches to improve recognition may or may not be beneficial for success, but the motivation required to push through monotony or discomfort is a mixture of external and internal. The quiet word from a patient coach offering me support reminded me that even though I might not see the results at the plate right away, my energy spend wasn’t going to waste. This wasn’t about the coach’s content being right or wrong. In the moment, he was reinforcing my determination, not my talent. It was about their willingness to dig in with me and demonstrate partnership.
“These experiments showed that even the smallest acknowledgement increased willingness to work and decreased the level of pay required. But they also showed just how disastrous it can be to ask someone to perform work that they do not see the meaning in,” said Ariely.
Making these connections and establishing these partnerships doesn’t need to be an intense effort. It only requires some understanding of others and a willingness to be open. Recently, I met a rockstar business manager at a little breakfast spot in Santa Monica. Our conversation ranged far and wide over the 90 minutes we shared together. He made the claim that there is nothing better than face to face communication to connect with someone.
For him, this made perfect sense. I was able to watch him light up as he passionately described his favorite Scotch. In that moment, we were on the same wavelength and establishing a strong connection. I was inspired, and he unquestionably had my full attention. I didn’t have to put any effort in. The engagement was natural.
I don’t fully buy his contention, however. I can walk into a clubhouse anywhere and see dudes sitting at their locker, texting and sending Snapchats to the teammate 3 seats down. For them, those moments are no less real than if they sat down over a cup of coffee.
Regardless of the medium, bonds are being reinforced, appreciation is being expressed and most critically, everyone feels acknowledged. That acknowledgment creates intense connection. Ask Bill Clinton.
“All my life I’ve been interested in other people’s stories,” Clinton wrote in My Life. “I wanted to know them, understand them, feel them.”
“But countless anecdotes about Clinton suggest that his legendary charisma stems from the undivided attention he gives to every person he meets.”
The strongest effects come into play when we make people feel inspired, motivated and valued in a way that works best for them. For some, that’s in person. Others may prefer a text, an email, or a phone call. Our challenge to ourselves should be to be aware enough to identify how a person feels appreciated and flexible enough to demonstrate it in the way that lands as most comfortable. We feel seen, heard and valued as human beings…so we can put our heads down and get back to work.