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The Surprising Power of a Thumbs Up

Even an orangutan can do it.

So why don’t we do it more often? The thumbs up is a simple gesture of acknowledgment. It doesn’t take much energy. Heck, it even feels good. Just ask The Fonz.

But, when it comes to the work we do, a thumbs up (or any sort of acknowledgment) is a rarity. That’s a shame. And not just for touchy-feely reasons. It turns out that simple acknowledgment can have a disproportionate impact on motivation.

A Clever Experiment

Duke Professor Dan Ariely conducted a revealing experiment that showed the power acknowledgment can have. Or, more precisely, the danger of doing nothing.

In the experiment, MIT students were asked to complete a menial task — circle repeating pairs of letters on a page full of random letters. For every 10 pairs found, they turned in the page for a nominal amount of pay ($0.55). They were then asked to repeat the task for slightly lower pay ($0.50). This cycle would continue (complete a page, do another for slightly less pay) until the participant decided to stop.

In short, it’s a nice experiment design that gets at how motivated a person is to continue doing a meaningless task.

Yet, what’s particularly clever is how those participants were treated for completing their work. One group was acknowledged. One group was ignored. And, one group had their work run through a paper shredder. That’s right. A shredder. Right in front of their eyes.

You can likely guess how the results turned out.If you guessed that the Acknowledged Group remained motivated and the Shredded Group was demotivated (if not horrified), you’d be right. The Acknowledged Group was 90% more motivated.

But, what about the Ignored Group? How did they fare?

Not well. It turns out they were only 8% more motivated than the Shredded Group. Their work may as well have been shredded! At least it would have been more dramatic.

The Cost of Doing Nothing

Let that sink in for a second. Ignoring work is motivationally equivalent to destroying it.

Unfortunately, ignoring work is what we do most often. It’s not a malicious thing. It’s inertia. It’s easier to keep doing what we’re doing so that’s exactly what we do.

Over time, we become disenchanted. Disengaged. Disconnected from the impact of the work we do.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to fight the inertia and motivate those around us.

Three Easy Ways to Stop Ignoring and Start Acknowledging Great Work

• Make an effort to say “Good Job” to at least one of your coworkers each day this week

• Think back over the last month to identify any outstanding work that has gone by unnoticed. Then, let them know you noticed.

• Channel your inner Fonz and give someone a thumbs up. Bonus points if you make the “Ayyyy” sound. Double bonus points if this is done while wearing a leather jacket.

Tad is the Co-Founder and CEO of Payable.

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