How Uncertainty Makes Us Work Harder

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Over the past few years, there has been a general transformation in our understanding of just what it is that motivates us to do great things at work. While for much of the 20th century thinking seemed wedded to extrinsic factors such as pay and promotion, there seems so have been a profound shift towards more intrinsic factors in the early part of the 21st century.

We’ve seen things such as rewarding work and being given greater control and freedom over how we go about that work touted as the real key to inspiring and motivating the workforce. There’s a general theme inherent in such methods towards respect and appreciation of the employee.

A recent paper suggests, however, that something altogether less empowering might also contribute to our general levels of motivation.  The study, which was published in the Journal of Consumer Research, suggests that a degree of uncertainty in our work can actually contribute towards us putting in extra effort in the hope that we will gain rewards that are far from certain.

"When comparing the time, money, and effort people invest in order to qualify for either a certain or an uncertain reward, we find that the uncertain reward is more motivating than the certain reward, an effect we dubbed the motivating-uncertainty effect," the authors say.

The Value of Uncertainty

Participants in the study were required to drink a large glass of water in a short, two minute timeframe, with a reward given at the end of the task.  For some of the participants, this reward was a guaranteed amount (2 dollars), while, for others, a toss of a coin would decide whether they received one dollar or two.

Fascinatingly, it emerged that despite their reward being determined purely by chance, more people completed the task under this second condition than when the reward was guaranteed.

This finding was then replicated in a second experiment whereby participants were required to compete against one another in an auction for a box of chocolates. Some of the participants were told that there were just four chocolates left in the box, whereas the others were told there could be either two or four. Just as before, it emerged that people would bid much higher when the number of chocolates was largely uncertain.

The authors believe that their study could assist both companies and even policy makers when it comes to building systems that incentivise us to do things. If a dose of uncertainty is added to the mix, they suggest it will result in higher motivation as we are more likely to see the task as a game than we are to see at as work.

"The idea that uncertainty can increase motivation is counterintuitive, but its underlying mechanism is not. Consider the experience of slowly unwrapping a gift. Getting closer to finding out what is in the box is exciting and this excitement motivates action. Stated formally, the motivating-uncertainty effect is based on the positive experience that revealing the unknown induces," the researchers conclude.

See Also: Career Motivation Tests

So maybe you’ll be seeing a bit more uncertainty enter your own workplace before too long.

Do you think that uncertainty would help to motivate you? Your thoughts and comments below please...