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Does collaboration increase motivation?

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Employee engagement is at pretty perilous levels around the world, with a Gallup study earlier this year revealing that just 13% of employees are actually engaged in their work.  It’s pretty awful, and since the publication of the data there have been numerous attempts to assess how that situation could improve.

I’ve taken my own cue from the open innovation world, where research has highlighted just what it is that motivates people to join crowdsourcing projects that are often un-prompted, un-managed, and sometimes even un-paid.  It turns out that working on interesting projects, and having control over how they go about their work, is central to the enjoyment open innovators get from their work.

A recent study by a team of Stanford researchers suggests that the crowd could give us some further clues beyond that.  It suggests that the key to happiness in our working lives is sharing it with others in some way.

“Working with others affords enormous social and personal benefits,” the researchers declare.  “Our research found that social cues that conveyed simply that other people treat you as though you are working together on a task – rather than that you are just as working on the same task but separately – can have striking effects on motivation.”

The research team conducted five separate experiments, across which it emerged that the various cues of working together resulted in an increase in intrinsic motivation.

Participants were required to work on a task in isolation, having first been introduced to each other as a group.  A segment of the group was then primed to think collectively by being told they would work on the task together.  This would involve either sharing (or receiving) tips on how to complete the task by a colleague.

The remainder of the team were primed to think in solitary terms, with no mention of collaboration whatsoever in their challenge.  They would also receive a tip, but rather than receiving it from a colleague, they would receive it from the researcher, ie an external party that was not jointly engaged in the task with them.  The actual tip itself was identical to both groups.

As the researchers state, “In our studies, people never actually worked together – they always worked on their own on a challenging puzzle. What we were interested in was simply the effects of the perceived social context.”

Better off together

The results are indeed fascinating.  It transpired that those in the ‘collaborative’ group persisted up to 64% longer on the task than their solitary peers.  They also reported higher engagement levels, less fatigue at the end of the task, and a higher success rate.  They also engaged in more tasks of a similar nature a few weeks later.

“The results showed that simply feeling like you’re part of a team of people working on a task makes people more motivated as they take on challenges,” the researchers say. Moreover, the results reflect an increase in motivation – not a sense of obligation, competition or pressure to join others in an activity.

As with most collaborative efforts however, the researchers are at pains to point out that it isn’t always positive.  For instance, if people are obliged to work collectively, then that is unlikely to yield motivational benefits.  Alternatively if they feel that their efforts won’t be recognized in the collective this will not motivate them to strive.

Nevertheless, the researchers are broadly optimistic about the potential for their findings to enhance motivation in the workplace.

“Our research shows that it is possible to create a spirit of teamwork as people take on challenging individual tasks – a feeling that we’re all in this together, working on problems and tasks – and that this sense of working together can inspire motivation,” they conclude.

That these boosts can be achieved in relatively simple ways should be of interest to all managers.  Relatively subtle cues that signaled togetherness were all that was required to trigger the enhanced effort.

How can you deliver those cues in your own workplace?

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