The Sawyer Effect

In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom faces the dreary task of whitewashing his Aunt’s fence. Bored with the thought of ‘work’ he promotes the opportunity as ‘play’ to his friends managing to enlist a willing workforce to replace him.

The key motivational principle that Twain highlights here is that work is behaviour we are obliged to do, whereas play is behaviour one chooses to do.

I recently read Daniel Pink’s excellent book Drive – The surprising truth about what motivates us where Pink extends on research dubbed ‘The Sawyer Effect’.

The Sawyer Effect relates to research conducted with reference to the drivers of motivation around work and play.

Researchers experimented with children whereby they divided them into three groups.

The first group was the ‘expected award’ group where children were told they’d receive a certificate and ribbon if they drew a picture.

 The second group was the ‘unexpected award’ group where children were simply asked if they wanted to draw (without the promise of awards). At the end of the session, the researchers then handed each child that drew a certificate.

The third group was the ‘no award’ group. Children were invited to draw but no promise of award was made, nor certificates handed out at the conclusion.

Two weeks later the teachers set up paper and markers for the children during a free-play period and invited them to draw.

What happened next is fascinating.

Children who were in the second group of ‘unexpected award’ and third group of ‘no award’ drew just as much as they had previously.

However, the children in the first ‘expected award’ group showed much less interest and spent little time drawing.

Researchers concluded that The Sawyer Effect had taken hold.

The earlier experiment had now turned play into work.

 So how do we interpret The Sawyer Effect in the business environment?

Intrinsic motivation is what produces a solid work ethic within an individual. Workers feel a sense of autonomy and pride in fulfilling their duties independently in exchange for fair pay and conditions.

However, when contingent rewards are introduced ‘if you do this, then you will get this’, negative impacts can result.

‘If then’ rewards require people to forfeit some of their autonomy which can diminish intrinsic motivation over time.

This research has been extended to adults and found that ‘if then’ rewards have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation.

This is counter-intuitive to many of the methods invoked by business to drive individuals and teams.

But if we look a bit deeper, perhaps we can explore the impact on intrinsic motivation.

Sales people with ‘if then’ targets often lose drive after 2-3 years as they see the sales targets and metrics stretched further and further, becoming seemingly unattainable.

Bank workers lose motivation and are conflicted around customer service in their battle to meet imposed metrics on time and cost.

Factory workers feel challenged around quality and safety when faced with ‘if then’ production targets.

Across all borders, human frailty is tempted to crib, cheat or lie when needing to meet the constant ‘if then’ targets/rewards. It can bring out the worst in otherwise honest people.

So, we need to stop to consider The Sawyer Effect when we set ‘if then ‘rewards prescriptively for our team.

I challenge you to review rewarding your team with a quick The Sawyer Effect test.

Ask yourself two questions.

1.     Will intrinsic motivation be reduced by the ‘if then’ reward?

2.     Are the individual’s, or the firm’s, principles and values challenged in meeting the ‘if then’ reward?

If your answer to either or both questions is ‘yes’ I suggest you revisit the reward and review it.

Any reward introduced must continue to drive the intrinsic motivation of each individual while ensuring that other complementary objectives and goals are met.

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