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From Zero Sum Game to Win-Win at Work

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Dan Ariely
Dan Ariely
(Image by courtesy of Dan Ariely)
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My guest today is Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University.

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Joan Brunwasser: Welcome back to OpEdNews, Dan. I first interviewedyou back in 2012, exactly four years ago. You've written several New York Times best-selling books, including Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality , that explore how and why we make decisions. You have a new book, Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations. What motivated you to write this one?

Dan Ariely: In the last few years, actually quite a few years, since I started writing about my injuries, I got lots of people who write me about their injuries. And people have lots of questions. Mostly, they want to know what would life look like, post-injury. When people get injured, it's very clear to them what they've lost. But how they're going to live with the injury afterward is not as clear. And they want to have a discussion and talk about some of the options. I describe in the introduction to Payoff, that this is a very difficult process. I describe one case like this, but it's a very difficult, painful process. Personally exhausting, sometimes I cry; it's very consuming. And it's very, very different from what we think about when we think about happiness. It's not sitting on a beach drinking mojitos. And nevertheless, I'm drawn to it. It's not that I'm drawn from the regular happiness perspective; I'm drawn to it because I feel I can help and contribute and so on. I started doubting the question of what is real happiness. When whether the short-term happiness that we are engaging in all the time is something that is not necessarily the long-term happiness that we should be engaged with. That was the first part.

The second part was to think about what we do with our lives, how we motivate other people. So there's the question about what motivates us and what's happiness and then there's the question of what motivates other people. I think often we have the notion that money motivates people. It turns out too that money has some advantages as a motivator but it's not always the panacea. Sometimes, money creates demotivation; it somehow changes how we think about work and so on. So it was searching for happiness on one hand, understanding that in many business contexts, we use money as a motivator. And wanting to question whether this is always the right choice and under what conditions should we think about motivation at work in broader terms.

That was the initial insight. And I just wanted to understand more of it and try to figure out if it's a thought that we should share with other people. If you think about it, if you have two factories, one gets people to be demotivated, the people in the factory suffer and the factory is not productive. If you think about one in which people are motivated, the people are happier, produce more and the factory is more effective. So, in all of those cases where motivation exists, everybody benefits.

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It's not a zero sum game. It's not a single pie. The pie can actually get larger. How do we get more of that?

Dan with LEGO Bionicles, which feature in many of his experiments
Dan with LEGO Bionicles, which feature in many of his experiments
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JB: I like the idea that, in the business context, this can be win-win as opposed to a zero sum game. But, as you say in your book, motivation is complex. You did discover fairly quickly how easy it is to demotivate. Can you talk about that a bit?

DA: Demotivation is actually very simple. And it's enough to look at the world around us to see the many opportunities people have for demotivation and the way that they hate them. One of the examples for me was in a new approach a company was taking for cubicles. Where not only did they have the cubicles that signal temporary employment and substitutability but they actually went a step farther. They basically created cubicles that people could claim every day. Their idea for these cubicles was that people would come every day and they would come early to get the best cubicles available. And while that was true, another thing that happened in the process was that people became incredibly demoralized. All of a sudden, they couldn't even put their pictures up there, or anything about their kids or any other kinds of possessions. There was no name, there was nothing on the cubicles. Everything about it was just shouting "you're here temporarily. You're just like everybody else and we can replace you very, very easily." And so my lesson from exploring motivation has been that yes, we should try to motivate people and create environments that motivate people. But the reality is that the first thing we need to do is to stop demotivating people. And I worry that too many times -- not intentionally, not with the goal of demotivating people -- we do things that change people's sense of mission and connection and link to the company and, in the process, we demotivate people a lot.

Dan's busy schedule makes it imperative to be the ultimate multi-tasker
Dan's busy schedule makes it imperative to be the ultimate multi-tasker
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JB: Beyond creating an environment that allows employees to personalize their space, there are other very simple do's and don't's that make perfect sense and yet are often overlooked. Please share a few of these tips, Dan.

DA: The main point, of course, is not personalized space. It's kind of nice but that's not it. The main issue is to transition the workplace from a place that focuses on short term to focus on the long term. So, anything that you could do to get people to think about the workplace in the long term is very helpful. So if you basically get people to think about their 3-year, 5-year, 10-year plan, if you get people to think about how long they've been working in a place and are proud of the duration, if you get people to realize that they have a voice in what is going to go with the company"

If you say, we want your advice on what to do with the corporate social responsibility, with the Christmas party, with product improvement and so on. If you ask people for their 3-year plan on improvement. So, all of those things are about that.

Then, of course there's autonomy. Which is to say, we appreciate your particular decisions and we give you some kind of flexibility. So, arranging your desk could be one of them. But the more important autonomy is fixing when you want to start and when you want to finish, when you want to work more and when you want to work less. And what projects you want to work on and so on. All of those things create more engagement, loyalty and care.

the many facets of Dan Ariely
the many facets of Dan Ariely
(Image by courtesy of Dan Ariely)
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)
 

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