The Science of Motivation

The last year or so has been a fascinating study in the “motivational arts,” for me. About 10 months ago, I was working for my former boss, and I had worked really hard on a project— until midnight multiple nights, into a planned vacation. The project was problematic through no fault of mine, and I delivered it when she needed it. Simultaneously, I had introduced a conversation that let us deliver things in a way that made our customers happier, our content less likely to be pirated, and reduced our call volume by a lot. I didn’t build that second one myself, but it was through my persistence that we started thinking in new ways about an old way of doing things and advanced pretty exponentially.

I told this story on the blog right around then. My name wasn’t mentioned in conjunction with either project. I went to my boss after a staff meeting when several people had been recognized for much smaller efforts, and she basically said that she didn’t put me up for recognition because her team was built to go above and beyond, so it wasn’t remarkable when we did. I knew these small recognitions created eligibility for a larger financial award, and argued that it was valuable for people to be recognized in that way. We essentially agreed to disagree, because I didn’t have any power in that scenario.

I have a new boss, and was just recognized for one of those larger financial awards. I went to my boss the next day and thanked him. I told him it meant a lot to me. He and I have talked separately about how I was “motivated” by having my back put to the wall and my job threatened, earlier this year. I didn’t use the word “humiliation,” but I definitely felt humiliated and shamed by the experience, and I worked to save my job through hot tears more than once. The new boss said that it was the wrong way to go, and I was encouraged by that.

This morning, the CEO came and gave me the larger financial award. I thanked him. On his way out, he spotted the award one of my projects won last fall. When we got it, he announced that I’d be allowed to keep the physical award in my office for the first quarter after we got it, which has since expired— I’ve had it in my office for six months, at least. He mentioned that he’d like to display it in the lobby. I said no problem, and offered to box it up for him. He said “no need,” grabbed the award, and told me I could chuck the box.

Here’s the thing. I knew the award was in my office temporarily, and I don’t mind that it’s gone to a more permanent placement. But motivationally speaking, if you want the greatest bump in my morale/motivation, maybe separate those two things— give me the award, and then take the other award away as a separate thing. Let me have the good thing by itself. There was nothing special that necessitated the award moving to the lobby today or this morning, but you lost some of the goodwill you bought with the financial reward by making it an exchange.

He did something similar at this year’s holiday party— we had a white elephant gift and he “stole” my gift (about which I was really excited but fine— that’s the nature of the white elephant game), and then tried to talk me out of the replacement gift (he has three daughters, and thought two of them would really like what I chose.) I didn’t give him the second thing because, seriously? How many hundreds of thousands of dollars do you make a year and you should get both of the $20 things I pick, of the 35 gifts there and I, alone, of the staff should go home empty-handed to prove my loyalty to you? It’s childish, but I kept it out of spite and display it, adjacent to that award he took. Possibly I’m just being motivated to something else.


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