This question frequently gets raised in workshops on leadership and management, and the answer quickly comes back: “your own”. Yet even though this characteristic of human motivation is intuitively known by us all, it’s still surprising how much management time is spent prescribing to staff exactly how they should go about their tasks.
Let me clarify. I’m not saying that people should not be instructed in basic skills and procedures, nor that there are times, especially during emergencies when the details should be clearly spelled out. And it goes without saying that people need to helped to understand exactly what goals they are working towards. It’s simply that if you want to motivate somebody and get the best from them, you’ll get better results by drawing out their own ideas. Yes it’s true; we like our own ideas the best!
It was interesting to hear this finding backed up and quantified in a research experiment reported by Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and Amos Tversky. The researchers ran a lottery with a difference. Half the participants were randomly assigned a lottery number. The remaining half were given a blank piece of paper and a pen and asked to write any number they would like as their lottery number. Just before drawing the winning number, the researchers offered to buy back the tickets. The question researchers wanted to answer is, “How much more do you have to pay someone who ‘wrote their own number’ versus someone who was handed a number randomly?”
The rational answer is that there should be no difference, given that a lottery is pure chance and every ticket number, whether self-chosen or allocated should have the same value. The actual finding was that wherever the experiment was conducted, and with whatever population, the researchers always had to pay at least five times more to those who wrote their own number.
So the truth that this reveals about human nature is that when we choose for ourselves, we are far more committed to the outcome — by a factor of five to one! So for all leaders who want to drive up engagement levels, enhance performance and drive change, the message could not be clearer.