Everybody knows “uncertainty” is a problem. Uncertainty about the economy puts the stock market in a really bad mood. When company performance is uncertain, employees start eyeballing the exits. Uncertainty about where you stand with another person makes interactions fraught with anxiety.
That’s because uncertainty frequently creates a fear of the unknown. A kid gets scared of the dark when he can’t be absolutely, 100-percent positive that there aren’t vampires lurking in the deepest shadows of his room. Are those vampires unlikely to be there? Sure. But have you ever tried asking a kid to apply probabilistic reasoning to vampires at midnight? It does not work.
“So you’re saying there’s a chance there are vampires in here?”
“Well, no, because the possibility is so vanishingly small it’s not even worth thinking about.”
“But there’s a chance.”
“That’s not the point.”
“But you keep trying to win Powerball and mom says there’s no chance of that either.”
You never realize what thin ice you’re on until your assumptions are examined by an eight-year-old looking for reassurance that the world makes sense.
There’s a flip side to uncertainty, though. It doesn’t always produce anxiety. In fact, sometimes, under the right conditions, it can produce delight.
As a manager, you’re even in a position to use this rarer form of uncertainty to motivate your team to greater results.
First, the research:
Researchers at the University of Chicago devised an experiment in which they challenged two groups of people to drink a sizable amount of water within two minutes. Members of the first group would receive a prize of $2 for successfully downing all the water. Separately, members of the second group heard that if they finished all the water within two minutes they’d win a prize of either $1 or $2.
So what do you think happened? Surely, rational beings offered a quantifiably greater reward for the same amount of work would successfully complete the task more often. That’s what happened, right?
No, of course not! Because people are not all that rational. People are nuts. And not knowing whether you’re going to get $1 or $2 just for drinking water is fun! Just 43% of the folks who knew they’d be getting $2 finished the water. On the other hand, 70% of the second group got the job done.
The same phenomena shows up in other studies with different approaches. For example, one experiment had participants bid for known vs. uncertain quantities of chocolate. They bid more when they weren’t precisely sure how much chocolate they’d be getting.
The takeaway here is this: If it’s a given that an outcome is going to be positive, people will devote more effort to gaining a reward if its value is a little uncertain.
So what does that mean for managers? If you’re going to use small rewards, monetary or otherwise, to give your team an incentive to be more productive, stay a little vague about what the reward will be. If you provide absolute certainty about how much work will produce a given reward, you’re just designing a transaction. On the other hand, if the reward could be a gift card, or a lunch, or leaving at four instead of five… you’ve designed a game. And it’s the fun and excitement of a game that keeps people engaged and playing, or, in this case… working.
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