A Little Acknowledgement Goes A Long Way

Carson Arias

Zig Ziglar once said  “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing—that’s why we recommend it daily”. 

Think back when you were a junior staffer and you worked on a presentation, project or proposal only to have it dismissed out of hand or subtly ignored. If this has ever happened to you, you’ll know it’s a real motivation killer. Good leaders know the importance of valuing contributions and how it can create a culture of achievement and motivation in the people we manage.

In his book “The Upside of Irrationality“, Dan Ariely describes an experiment where he puts some science behind this all too familiar situation.

 The researchers paid participants to identify and circle instances where the same letter appeared side-by-side on a page of text. They were paid on a descending scale, the highest amount for the first page they completed and less for each page after that until they figured the money wasn't worth it and they quit. People were randomly assigned to groups that would have one of three variations on this basic idea.

 The first group wrote their name on page and the examiner looked over the page and verbally acknowledged the work before placing the page on the pile of worksheets.

 The second group did not write their name on page. The examiner just placed the finished page on a pile without looking at it or acknowledging receiving it.

The third group did not write name on page. The examiner immediately placed their finished worksheet in a shredder.

If it was just a matter of money, each group should quit working at approximately the same pay rate (remember the descending pay rate). The results showed that the group that had its work shredded when handed up, stopped working at almost twice the pay rate than the group that had its work fleetingly acknowledged. The group that had its unnamed work placed on a pile without acknowledgement stopped working at very nearly the same pay rate as the group that had their work shredded.

The similarity between the last two groups is interesting. “Ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort before their eyes,” Ariely says. “The good news is that adding motivation doesn't seem to be so difficult. The bad news is that eliminating motivation seems to be incredibly easy, and if we don’t think about it carefully, we might overdo it.”

 It is striking how little acknowledgement it takes to motivate people. Just taking a little time to acknowledge and thank employees is critical to maintaining a happy and productive staff. This can be more effective than payment incentives and expensive corporate culture projects. A little acknowledgement really does go a long way. A good leader knows that.