The Motivational Power of the Word Together

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There is, apparently, one word that can motivate people to both work longer and produce better-quality work, without burning out: together. According to a new paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, people’s attitudes and work ethic changed when they were told they would be working together with, and receiving tips from, their peers.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, the associate director for the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School, has a nice write-up of the study today on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network. She walks us through the setup for the experiment:

Participants first met in small groups, and then separated to work on difficult puzzles on their own. People in the psychologically together category were told that they would be working on their task “together” even though they would be in separate rooms, and would either write or receive a tip from a team member to help them solve the puzzle later on. In the psychologically alone category, there was no mention of being “together,” and the tip they would write or receive would come from the researchers. All the participants were in fact working alone on the puzzles. The only real difference was the feeling that being told they were working “together” might create.

And that one tiny change in phrasing resulted in some big differences, Halvorson writes:

The effects of this small manipulation were profound: participants in the psychologically together category worked 48% longer, solved more problems correctly, and had better recall for what they had seen. They also said that they felt less tired and depleted by the task. They also reported finding the puzzle more interesting when working together, and persisted longer because of this intrinsic motivation (rather than out of a sense of obligation to the team, which would be an extrinsic motivation).

If you’re a manager, there’s a real-life takeaway here, Halvorson writes: Use the word together as often as possible when communicating with your staff. It’s a simple way to remind people that they’re not on their own.