Imagine you’re the manager of a small public relations shop. Every day, your team of account managers needs to call newspaper reporters, trade magazine writers, bloggers, news program producers, and a whole suite of other media professions that have precisely zero interest in hearing from them. One day, one of the newer account managers comes to your office crying (not unheard of in this line of work) and shows you an email from an especially curmudgeonly business writer. It reads:

“Your pitch is so poorly written and so exquisitely irrelevant to me I have printed it out and plan to frame it.”

The account manager points out that this message is unnecessarily mean. That it’s hard to work under these conditions. That taking off the rest of the day, and possibly the next, is essential. That never was anyone ever expected to be productive in the face of such hostility.

You consider your options. The fact is, the pitch was both poorly written and irrelevant to the writer’s beat. But your fine instincts tell you that now is probably not the time to have that conversation. You tell the account manager to take the rest of the day off, and to come in tomorrow ready to talk about strategies for staying productive even when things like this happen.

So, while the account manager is off engaging in some spiritual healing, you’re at your desk thinking. How do you make sure calls keep getting made and article pitches keep getting pitched? This latest episode didn’t come out of nowhere. The whole team pretty much loathes this part of the job. And that’s a problem, because it’s pretty much the only part of the job.

Then, the clouds part. A beam of sunlight comes in through the Venetian blinds. It falls on a research paper you’ve been meaning to read. It’s about something called “temptation bundling,” and it has to do with a novel strategy for getting people to go to the gym. You decide you’ll think about the whole productivity/morale issue later. First, you’ll take a few minutes to read this completely unrelated research.

Here’s what you learn:

Researchers at the Harvard Kennedy School and UPenn’s Wharton School of Business devised an experiment to uncover whether a carefully structured bribe would improve participation in an exercise program. Of course, to get rational beings to go to the gym, they shouldn’t need anything more than the knowledge that exercise is essential to good health. But we’re not rational, at least not to the degree we like to think we are. So, the researchers let everyone know that in return for participating in the study, they’d receive a big library of audio books. A third of the participants got the audio books right away. A third of them were promised the audio books at the end of the study. And, a third of them received this condition: They had to listen to the audio books at the gym.

What happened next? That last group showed up at the gym 25% more often than the folks who got the audio books up front. Not only that, at the end of the study, 61% of all study participants said they were willing to pay the researchers to take the audio books away from them and only give them access at the gym.

The phenomenon at work is temptation bundling. The study participants, in the short term, may not have wanted to go to the gym. But they did want the long-term benefits of having gone to the gym. By offering them free audiobooks only at the gym, the researchers created a short-term reward that could compete with or replace the partipants’ short-term desire to stay home and play Xbox. QED: They’re more likely to get the long-term benefits of having gone to the gym.

Back at your office, you’re thinking that maybe reading this study wasn’t so irrelevant to your productivity/morale problem after all. You know everybody on your team wants to do a good job, so they can advance in their careers. That’s like the long-term benefits of going to the gym. But nobody wants to call a bunch of trade magazine writers who seem like they’re in perpetual bad moods. That’s like having to grind out 45 minutes on a StairMaster when it would be so much nicer to just go back to sleep. So what’s the audiobook library in this scenario? It has to be something your team wants in the short term. And it has to be something they want more than they want to avoid making those calls.

For the time being, you’re going to try setting up a daily call quota. Once an account manager meets their daily call quota, they can leave an hour early. If everybody meets their quota, you buy lunch. Over time, you tweak the model to get it to work better, but you’re off to a great start. And by this point, you’re ready to go back to that account manager and talk about making pitches more relevant and better written.

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