Revisiting Employee Motivation … and the Power of a Single Word

Part of the challenge of managing people is learning how to motivate them.

In a previous post, we asked, “Is Employee Motivation Increasingly Beyond Our Control?,” citing research that claims employees are less motivated by traditional extrinsic rewards (raises, bonuses, promotions, etc.) and increasingly motivated by intrinsic rewards (an internal sense of achievement and satisfaction) that can’t be handed out by employers.

The good news is that motivating employees to greater levels of achievement is definitely not beyond our control, and both extrinsic and intrinsic rewards can be powerful motivational tools. But it’s important to remember that motivation isn’t driven by “rewards” alone.

A recent post on the Harvard Business Review blog site tells us that “Managers Can Motivate Employees with One Word.” That word is … together.

The post’s author, Heidi Grant Halvorson, quotes new findings from researchers at Stanford University who brought people together in small groups, then separated them to work alone on challenging puzzles. But the researchers also did something quite fascinating: they told a portion of these individuals that they would be working on their puzzles together, despite being in different rooms. These people were also told they would receive a tip at some point from a team member to help them solve their puzzle. The researchers categorized these individuals as “psychologically together.”

For the other portion of individuals in this study—the ones who made up the “psychologically alone” category—researchers made no mention of the word “together,” and these people were told that a researcher would provide them with a helpful tip at some point. As Halvorson notes, “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 what a difference it was. Halvorson reports that “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.” The word “together” signals to employees that they’re connected to others they can trust and who are working with them toward the same goal.

Halvorson goes on to urge managers “to make use of this word with far greater frequency … Let ‘together’ be a constant reminder to your employees that they are not alone, helping them to motivate them to perform their very best.”

Let’s be clear: Halvorson isn’t advocating that managers use the word “together” as a ruse or a way of tricking employees into feeling a sense of connectedness that doesn’t exist. This cannot be a hollow gesture. Managers must actually be team builders, nurturing work environments that promote collaboration and teamwork. They must also model the right behaviors. Only within such an environment can the word “together” have real impact.

For managers looking to enhance their teams and work environments, a recent Fortune article offers some real-world inspiration. In “Five Secrets To Building Killer Teams,” seasoned leaders offer personal insights into how they’ve tackled the challenge. They recommend actions such as “Throw out the hierarchy,” “Be forthright,” and “Seek out non-traditional diversity.”

The word “together” can make a big difference when it comes to motivating our people. But we have to earn the right to use it. Once we do, we should follow Halvorson’s advice and use it often.