We all want to motivate our team members to meet their deadlines. We do this by offering bonuses, extra days off, recognition, etc., but what if these rewards are actually stifling creativity and hindering the potential of the team?
As deadlines approach, there can be a sense of panic that boils to the surface and many team leaders will seek to encourage faster work through the afore mentioned rewards (while some more aggressive ones simply threaten). In these situations, adding motivating compensations often return results of poor quality and sometimes don't help to prevent teams from missing deadlines.
So why is it that when we are presented with things we truly want, the results are often lackluster?
There is a famous experiment that illustrates and explains what happens to people as they work to complete a task as quickly as possible for sake of reward.
The Candle Task
The candle task, otherwise known as Duncker's Candle Problem was an experiment conducted by Karl Duncker and the results posthumously published in 1945. The test was a simple puzzle in which participants were asked to fix a lit candle to a wall (a cork board) without allowing any wax to drip on the table just below it. They were only able to use the following items:
- Book of matches
- Box of tacks
A majority of participants began with the idea of simply tacking the candle to the wall and were met with failure. Others had the promising idea of melting a bit of the candle and pressing it against the wall to let the wax harden. This too, ended in disappointment.
After a few moments of contemplation, most people came to the conclusion pictured below.
The solution being to empty the box of its contents and tack it to the wall, creating an excellent holder for the lit candle. This requires a bit of creative thinking for one to see the box as something other than a holder for the tacks.
In 1962, Sam Glucksberg furthered this test by offering cash incentives to some participants if they completed the task faster than other participants. The control group was labeled low-drive and were told that they were simply being tested to "obtain norms on the time needed to solve". The variant group, referred to as high-drive, was told that the fastest 25% to solve would receive $5, with the fastest participant earning $20 - a fair amount of money for the time.
The second condition was how the test was presented. Some were presented with a box of tacks while others were presented with an empty box alongside some tacks, essentially as a third item. This made the solution much more obvious, as it required less critical thought.
Participants averaged a much faster completion time when presented with an empty box than those who were given a box full of tacks. However, those in the high-drive group consistently returned slower performances when the box was given full of tacks.
By morphing the problem from a task to a competition for limited resources (high-drive), mild levels of stress appear which can invoke the fight-or-flight response. This stress response essentially cuts off access to the prefrontal cortex, the creative thinking and problem solving area of the brain.
Incentives (or demanding deadlines) are helpful only when a task takes little to no critical thinking. If the task is simply "tack this box to the wall", various rewards will likely produce a faster result.
In contrast, any task that requires critical thinking will suffer in speed or quality (and sometimes both) when stress is introduced (either with promise of reward or fear of punishment).
The working Western world has largely outsourced uncomplicated tasks in an attempt to cut costs, leaving a majority of the workforce to spend their time on creative solutions and problem solving.
So, how do we reconcile the fact that deadlines have to be met with the idea that competitive completion times stifle our ability to work quickly?
How do we work to facilitate environments that inspire and encourage creativity instead of merely dangling metaphorical carrots in front of our coworkers?
Open communication and collaboration have the greatest positive effects for teams working to achieve creative goals. Welcoming the input of other team members helps to open our minds to new possibilities and allows us to repurpose our resources for the most efficient solution, just as was required for Duncker's Candle Problem.
While bonuses and other rewards have their place, they cannot be relied upon as a catalyst for beneficial results in every scenario. Begin by promoting good communication among your team members, and allow them to be creative for the health of the team and the company.