Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations

In his thought-provoking new book, Dan Ariely makes a case for meaning, challenge and commitment as the biggest motivators in work and life.

What really motivates us? Our values? Love? Status? Money? This is the question that author Dan Ariely pondered when a complete stranger asked him to comfort her son, who was in hospital with severe burns to his body. Having spent three years in hospital himself as a teenager with burns covering 70% of his body, Ariely managed to find the right words, and an outlet for his own past suffering. For Ariely, then, what motivates us to act is closely tied to the meaning we give to life.

The working world is no different. As followers of Adam Smith, or Dilbert (for those with a more cynical outlook on life), we continue to break down the manufacturing process in order to improve productivity. Yet, by treating employees like replaceable cogs in a machine, we sap their motivation.

This is what Ariely emphasized during a talk in Seattle before hundreds of computer engineers who had become indifferent and dejected after being abruptly told that a long-standing project had been cancelled. In the working world, the notion that employees can only have a small piece of the pie — and that this piece can be reduced to a salary — is still widely held. However, it completely ignores what really motivates people, namely challenges, autonomy and work commitment. And yet, Ariely points out and his research attests, there are solutions aimed at providing meaning and fostering commitment in order to combat the Sisyphus syndrome (i.e., being compelled to continuously repeat a self-defeating practice).

While it may be true that, once paid out, bonuses can cause job performance to decline drastically, recognition and encouragement from managers can motivate and inspire employees to continue their efforts.

To corroborate this fact, Ariely explains how, in an experiment conducted at Intel, production workers preferred receiving a text message that said “Well done!” — or even free pizza — to money. Their productivity increased by 6% the next day.

There is also the “Ikea effect.” Who hasn’t felt a tingling of pride after successfully assembling a complex furniture kit? The key is to roll up your sleeves and not lose sight of the fact that the effort, which is often the key to success, will be more than worth it.

Payoff makes many references to the workplace, but also to daily life (family, hobbies, death, etc.). The book is in keeping with Ariely’s TED Talks, the presentations by experts on various subjects (Payoff is part of the TED Books collection). It is direct, thought-provoking and full of compelling anecdotes. Although this style sometimes has its limitations, it is a gift for a teacher and researcher like Ariely, who can pull out hundreds of studies to support his theories.

Payoff is a short book, albeit one that is useful if it can get us to change the way we look at the world — which, according to the author, is surely one of the best investments anyone can make.