Employees–Just Rats In A Maze? What Really Motivates Your Law Firm Professionals

When evaluating patterns of human behavior, scientists often turn to rats that—it turns out—behave quite rationally.

However, even if the daily grind might make you feel like a hamster on a wheel, it turns out that people, while predictable, don’t respond quite as rationally as scientists expect.

“When we think about how people work, the naïve intuition we have is that people are like rats in a maze,” says behavioral economist Dan Ariely in a talk at TEDxRiodelaPlata, reports Jessica Gross for the TED Blog.

“We really have this incredibly simplistic view of why people work and what the labor market looks like.”

Humans don’t obey all the same rational, cognitive cues of rats. Instead, they are motivated by less obvious but equally measurable activities. As a manager, tap into any one of these things and you’ll find employees work harder, longer, and more passionately than before.

Here are a few experiments presented by Ariely that explain what motivates law firm professionals to become more productive:

1. Seeing the final product of hard work may make employees more productive

Set-up: This study, conducted by Airely at Harvard University, asked participants to build characters from Lego’s Bionicles series. Participants were divided in two groups, and each group was paid decreasing amounts for each subsequent Bionicles: $3 for the first character, $2.70 for the next, and so on. The first group’s figures were stored under the table and disassembled at the end of the experiment. The second group’s Bionicles, however, were disassembled as soon as they’d been built. “This was an endless cycle of them building and we destroying in front of their eyes,” explained Ariely.

Outcome: The first group made 11 Bionicles on average. The second group averaged only seven before they decided to quit the game.

Take-away: At law firms, associates often spend time on research or due diligence that doesn’t end up in the case. Employees may even know that their work will eventually be destroyed. However, as the study shows, watching your work be belittled or trashed before your eyes is de-motivating. Seeing the “fruits of your labor”—even momentarily—increases productivity. So, save those trial prep binders a few weeks longer. Ask your employees to take out and save documents that could be useful or reused in future cases.

2. The less appreciated employees feel their work is, the more money they may want to do it

Set-up: In another experiment by Ariely, this time at MIT, student participants were asked to take a piece of paper filled with random letters and find pairs of identical letters. After each round, participants were offered less money than the previous round. Participants in the first group wrote their names on their sheets of paper and handed them to the experimenter, who looked it over and said “Uh huh” before placing it in a pile. Participants in the second group didn’t write down their names on the paper, and the experimenter placed their sheets in a pile without looking at it. Participants in the third group watched their work shredded immediately upon completion.

Outcome: Participants whose work was shredded needed twice as much money to be motivated to complete the task than those whose work was acknowledged. Participants in the second group, whose work was saved but ignored, needed almost as much money as participants whose work was shredded immediately.

Take-away: “Ignoring the performance of people is almost as bad as shredding their effort before their eyes,” Ariely explained. “The good news is that adding motivation doesn’t seem to be so difficult. The bad news is that eliminating motivation seems to be incredibly easy, and if we don’t think about it carefully, we might overdo it.” Lawyers are often in the “tough love” camp of mentorship. But, there is value to acknowledging hard work. It can be measured by the subsequent motivation of those employees you have rewarded.

3. Employees may derive more pride from projects that were difficult to compete

Set-up: In yet another experiment, Ariely gave participants (with no prior origami experience) origami paper and instructions about how to build a (pretty ugly) product. At the end, those who did the origami project, as well as bystanders, were asked how much they’d pay for the final origami piece. In a second round, Ariely hid the instructions from some participants, resulting in a more difficult process, as well as an uglier product.

Outcome: In the first experiment, the builders of origami paid five times as much as those who simply evaluated the origami product. In the second experiment, the lack of instructions amplified this difference: builders or origami valued the “ugly-but-difficult” products more highly than the easier, prettier ones, while observers valued them much less.

Take-away: Employees value their work based on the effort and work it required. In addition, employees (erroneously) think that others will attribute the same value to it. As a law firm manager, don’t forget to ask your employees about how much effort tasks took. It may help you understand what type of feedback to give them. For example, employees may be exceptionally proud of a project that required a lot of time and effort. As a result, they may expect a reward or acknowledgement by their superiors, who—for their part—may not have, previously, valued the work so highly.

4. Positive reinforcement about employee skills or ability may increase their real performance

Set-up: At Harvard University, undergraduate students gave speeches and participated in mock interviews with experimenters who either (1) nodded and smiled; or (2) shook their heads, furrowed their eyebrows, and crossed their arms.

Outcome: After their speech and mock interview, participants answered a series of numerical questions. Those who were positively encouraged with nods and smiles answered the questions more accurately than those in the second group, who were met with negative body language.

Take-away: Stressful situations are manageable—they depend on how employees are made to feel. As a law firm manager, if you provide positive reinforcement to associates, confidence in their abilities will lead to future success in performance. When you provide too much negative feedback, employees become discouraged and may fail at subsequent tasks.

Rats and mice may follow the cheese. But men and women respond to feelings of satisfaction, positive reinforcement for their efforts, and other non-monetary motivations.


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