Close

Sign up to get the latest news and stories on the future of work.

Subscribe Search

Search form

This is part of our monthly TED Talk Tuesday series, spotlighting can't-miss TED Talks and their key takeaways. You can learn more about our partnership with TED here.

Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, uses unusual experiments to understand what motivates humans to act in certain, seemingly irrational, ways.

For example, at work, are individuals more motivated by recognition than they are by money? And at what point does a lack of recognition make even the promise of financial reward no longer worth it? These are just a few of the questions that Ariely works to answer.

In his TED talk, Ariely highlights how his experiments on performance recognition help demonstrate that as humans beings, we want to be valued, not just paid.

Watch the video below and read on for three key takeaways from his talk.

"When we think about how people work, the naive intuition we have is that people are like rats in a maze—that all people care about is money."

If people are truly motivated by money, "Why does anyone climb mountains?" asks Ariely. It requires time, hard work and it's downright dangerous. This suggests people get satisfaction and meaning from the challenge of completing a task successfully, especially when it's a difficult one.

It's easy to get caught up trying to make employees 'happy' by providing monetary rewards. Instead, take some time to find out what truly motivates them—whether it's completing a challenging assignment, engaging with coworkers and clients or being recognized for their work. By incorporating these things into their day-to-day work, you will not only make them happy but inspire them to do their best work.

"Eliminating motivation seems to be incredibly easy, and if we don't think about it carefully, we might overdo it."

In one of Ariely's experiments, participants were asked to keep repeating a worksheet that was either acknowledged, ignored or shredded for increasingly smaller monetary rewards, until they no longer wanted to participate. Unsurprisingly, those people whose work was being ignored or shredded stopped participating much earlier than those who got a simple look of affirmation from the supervisor.

Ariely's conclusion? Even a little recognition can be motivational, but its absence can be paralyzing. This couldn't be truer in a work environment—employees thrive on feedback and acknowledgement, no matter how small it may seem.

"When we think about labor, we usually think about motivation and payment as the same thing, but the reality is that we should probably add all kinds of things to it—creation, challenges, ownership, identity and pride."

There is no longer a clear separation between work and life. This lack of boundaries makes it more important than ever for people to find meaning in what they do. That's why money isn't enough to motivate individuals anymore. While adequate pay is important, it doesn't replace the feeling of being challenged, rewarded and proud.

How can you incorporate these components, Ariely asks, to create meaning in your workplace — and for your employees?

Photo: TED