Pushing past the lull

I always find myself amused when I walk past this driveway. I call it the driveway to nowhere, because standing right in front of that shiny new slab of concrete is an old tree trunk.

Driveway to nowhere

Could there by a more apt metaphor for how business or personal projects usually go? We get excited, spend money preparing ourselves for the journey ahead, maybe even tell people how great it’s going to be, then hit a roadblock.

Surviving the bit after the start

Whether you are running a project for work or trying to change personal habits, the challenge is to survive the bit after the start. In Stanford University professor BJ Fogg’s language, we need to prepare to ride the motivation wave, with the high invariably being followed by a low.

Tips for projects and project teams

1.     Do the hard stuff first

At the commencement of a project, when the team is most keen to impress each other and make a mark, that’s the time to do the heavy lifting. Run longer form workshops if you need them, assign work to individuals and team, and require they report back to the group. Get the tasks people don’t like doing (often setting up the systems and processes) out of the way, being careful to balance it with some activities where people can start to share their vision for the project.

2.  Short and shallow lulls

Once the honeymoon period is over, the team may start getting distracted by other shiny objects and greener grass. Suddenly people don’t attend meetings or submit what they promised. Time to get some fun back into the group to reenergise the project. Bring them back to what they personally want to achieve and say lull-a-bye!

3. Create your good news/bad news cadence

Short term bias means people will be more interested in the immediate timeframe. Not only that, they’ll be motivated by good news in the short term and want to defer the pain of bad news till later. 

  • Work with this natural rhythm by prioritising frequent, short and intermittent rewards over bigger, more distant payoffs. For example, organise free coffees for everyone, a guest speaker to share ideas, or simply write a nice note to team members rather than just plan a celebration when the project wraps in 12 months time.
  • On the flipside, batch bad news so they are not constantly reminded of it. Losses hurt more than gains feel good, and we get over bad news faster if we experience more of it once rather than smaller amounts more often.

4. Never ever ignore the work people have put in

The fastest way to deflate an individual or team is to ignore their efforts. As researchers have discovered, it’s as damaging to motivation as destroying their work in front of their eyes. As busy as you might be, always acknowledge their contribution, even if it cannot be used. In this case explain why and give them an opportunity to share what they learned with the group so they don’t feel it was wasted effort.

Tips for habit change

1. Do the hard stuff first

As with running a project, capitalise on your peak motivation at the start by doing the hard stuff. Set up your environment to support your new behaviour, so that might mean distancing yourself from people who don’t share your goals and/or clearing out a spare room so you can do your planned yoga without having to find and pay for a class.

2. Anticipate roadblocks

Known as ‘implementation intentions’, anticipate you will encounter roadblocks and plan how you will respond when they happen. It’s as simple as jotting down some “If/then” statements, like “If I am invited out with friends then I will drink sparkling mineral water and tell them I am on a health kick”, or “If I am travelling for work, then I will order my vegan dinner from a meal delivery service”.

3. Focus on process not progress

We can quickly get demotivated if our progress isn’t what we hoped – you see this all the time with people on a diet who chuck it in as soon as the scale doesn’t represent their efforts. Instead, focus on the process that will ultimately get you to your desired outcome. If weight loss is your thing, focus on eating a good dinner and moving everyday rather than measuring how your body changes on the scale. Measure the consistency of your effort rather than the outcome.

Getting staff to do stuff

“Why don’t staff just do what they’re paid to do?”

“Sometimes I feel like their parent rather than a boss”

“It’s exhausting constantly having to tell them what to do. Why can’t they show some initiative?”

Managing people can be tough. In fact, judging by the questions I get in coaching and workshops, it’s the primary, but shrouded, challenge of most business owners and leaders. I say shrouded because it’s easier to talk about supplier negotiations, marketing conversion and pricing than it is to ‘fess up to how difficult getting staff to do stuff feels. There’s an assumption that you should just know – I mean, you’re the boss, right?  If thinking about and dealing with staff performance is soaking up too much of your time and energy and you’d prefer to be focussing more gratifying activities, read on.

Three truths about staff

Let’s start by understanding how staff members are wired. Just like customers, there are three truths about how your staff engage with the world:

  1. They write the script – they have a narrative of how the world works, and anything contrary to that (i.e. you are not doing what I need you to do), will be ignored or distorted;
  2. They are the hero of the story – the business isn’t the main thing in their world – they are. Anything that threatens their self-worth (i.e. they are not doing something correctly) will be rationalised away (e.g. it’s your fault/the business’ fault/other people’s fault, not theirs); and
  3. They run on batteries – energy levels, mood and cognition vary throughout the hour, day and week. Some days they will be “on”, some days they will be “off”.

How to get staff to do stuff

The three truths about how your staff members are wired force us to shift perspective from us to them, and this is vital if we want to influence their behaviour.

“Why do I have to always be the one who changes?” I hear you groan.

As I wrote in a piece about stone sculpture, if you hit a block of stone front on you’ll get one of two responses. One, you might split the stone in half, which ruins both the stone and your plans. Second, your chisel will bounce off the stone, right back at you. This happens with people if we try to bludgeon them with our views. Being too direct will either break their spirit or be met with a wall of defensiveness. Instead, if we want to shape the stone we need to chip away using angles.  It doesn’t need to be difficult, but it does require some thought.

By this point, then, I’m hoping you are thinking how you can speak to your staff from their point of view, not yours. But let’s delve further. There are only three reasons staff don’t do what you are asking:

  • Apathy – they can’t be bothered;
  • Paralysis – they are overwhelmed or confused; and/or
  • Anxiety – they are scared.

What to do when staff can’t be bothered

There are two mistakes we tend to make when trying to overcome staff apathy.

1. Assume money is sufficient motivation

Money may motivate to a degree and for roles that are based time or piece-work rates, but most behavioural research suggests:

  • Salary doesn’t motivate once you’ve reached a point where basic needs are taken care of (e.g. food, shelter). Most salaried employees don’t wake up every day excited that today they will earn $x – its salience recedes in their mind. While you might be thinking “I’m paying them for this”, they won’t have the same connection between money and productivity;
  • Money can actually impair performance in high-incentive cognitive tasks; and
  • Reminders of money can make staff less collaborative, so if you are emphasising individual bonuses don’t expect a lot of team play.  

2. Assume it should be enough once we’ve motivated them

Motivation is not a stable state – sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down. That means you can spend a lot of time and energy getting staff enthused about their work only to see it naturally abate.

Instead of relying on motivation to get staff to be bothered you need to:

  • Hit the effort sweet spot – if something is too hard, staff won’t engage for fear of failure. If something is too easy (e.g. you do it for them), they won’t engage because they feel they bring nothing to the work – there’s no ‘skin in the game’;
  • Make it intrinsically rewarding – extrinsic rewards like bonuses and promotions are not as compelling as those that make your staff member (the hero, remember) feel great about the contribution they are making. Share with them the purpose of the task – why it’s important – and give them the space to actually do it. Swooping in and doing it for them may work in the short-term, but you’ve just killed any desire they had to contribute in future;
  • Foster a culture of endeavour – if people see others coasting along they will be more likely to conform to that behaviour. Instead you need to showcase those who try as the ones who get rewarded; and
  • Acknowledge their efforts. I know, I know, spending your time acknowledging them for work they are PAID to do should not be required, but it is. In fact, ignoring their efforts is as detrimental as destroying their work in front of their eyes. It can be as simple as a “thanks for the effort you put into this” email or comment – just make sure you do it and you do it at the time, not months later in an annual review.

What to do when staff are overwhelmed

If your staff seem like bunnies in the headlights who can’t make a decision, it’s probably because they feel overwhelmed.  This often happens when priorities are in conflict and everything seems equally urgent and important.

Your role is to help them clarify both their objective and their first step towards it. Keep it simple – they just need to start – and help them disentangle what is urgent vs. what is important.

What to do when staff are scared

The silent killer of staff performance is anxiety – they may know what to do and why, but they are worried about proceeding.  They may feel there is too much pressure to perform (high stakes, high profile), they are out of their depth (a competency issue) or to proceed means breaking the cultural dynamic (i.e. Tall poppy syndrome).

Your role is to give them:

  • Nothing to fear if they do what you want – Encourage a ‘growth mindset’ culture where trying and learning is rewarded; let them know their job is secure and that you have their back; let them feel safe calling out when they are out of depth – relating stories when you felt this way will make it permissible; and
  • Something to fear if they don’t – Send the message through your actions that people who don’t put in will be left behind; that they’ll miss out realising their own potential if they don’t try; reward teams for the behaviour you want to see, and have them acknowledge team mates that made a difference so you create a culture where those who don’t contribute will feel like they are letting others down.

Is managing staff sometimes exhausting? Yes. Thankless? Often. But it is also one of the best things you can do. It is my ardent belief that most people turn up to work wanting do a good job – your task is to let them.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

Having a plan might mean planning to fail


One of the big assumptions we make when trying to change behaviour is that a plan will help. In other words, if we map out the specifics of how to achieve our goal we will be more likely to achieve it.

We do this in the workplace by getting staff to complete Performance Plans, and we do it in our personal life.  But what if “failing to plan is planning to fail” is wrong? What if planning is actually undermining our chances of success?

Goal difficulty impacts planning efficacy

Researchers from the University of Delaware were interested in the relationship between planning, the degree of difficulty of the behavioural goal and our motivation to undertake the goal. 

Using weight loss and saving money as typical goals, they hypothesised that:

  • Planning for a moderately difficult goal (e.g. reducing daily calories by 700 or saving $150/month) should make that goal seem more effortful and therefore more valuable, increasing the motivation to undertake it
  • Planning for an easy goal (e.g. reducing calories by 300 each day or saving $75/month) should make that goal seem less effortful and therefore less valuable, reducing motivation

In one of the three experiments they conducted, 219 participants for whom weight loss was a goal were split across two conditions. The first group were asked to write a plan for how they would cut calories, including what changes they would make, where and when (let’s call them the “Planners”).

The second group (the “Non-planners”) spent the equivalent amount of time writing about what they did they day prior, with no direction to focus on diet.

After both groups completed some further demographic questions and an unrelated computer task (to throw them off the scent), they were told to exit the room and take their paperwork to a research assistant in the hall.

Each participant was thanked by the assistant as they handed in their paperwork. The assistant also told them that there were some chocolates left over from a Halloween function and invited them to take as many fun-sized Milky Ways and Snickers as they wanted.

By way of side-glance, the assistant (who was deliberately left unaware of the hypotheses) recorded how many chocolates each participant took.

Planning can backfire for easy goals

According to this research, planning can backfire for easy goals. Here’s what they found:

  • When the goal was easy (e.g. 300 calories), Planners took more chocolates than Non-planners i.e. planning backfired because it decreased motivation to take action
  • When the goal was difficult (e.g. 700 calories), Planners took fewer chocolates than Non-planners i.e. planning worked by increasing motivation to act

The researchers concluded that the “effect of planning on motivation depends on goal achievement difficulty”.  By way of explanation, they suggest that this supports ‘energisation theory’, where “goals are more motivating as they become more difficult but demotivating when they become extremely difficult”. (Imagine an inverted U where at the extremes of ease and difficulty, people can’t be bothered to act, whereas a little bit of difficulty makes acting worthwhile.)

A time and place for planning

In short, we need to reconsider the assumption that plans are always beneficial. Here’s how you might like to think about the time and place for planning.

Difficult goals

Planning helps by forcing us to get specific, which not only clarifies what we need to do but also increases our perception of effort required. This in turn increases our motivation to undertake the goal because we equate effort with value.

Easy goals

Developing a plan for something that is perceived as easy can erode any motivation to bother. In a sense, we equate the lack of required effort with a lack of importance.

The problem, of course, is that there is no standard definition for easy and difficult so it can be a challenge to know when planning is best used. As the researchers note, what’s easy to one person may be difficult for another; the terms are relative and depend on the context and person. For someone who has a high income, saving $150 might be easy but the same is not true for someone on a lower wage.

My advice is therefore not to default to planning, but rather use it was a technique to unblock inertia. If there’s something you want to do but have been procrastinating, that’s your cue that a plan might help.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

Restaurants banned tips. What happened next?

A real-life behavioural experiment has been taking place in restaurants across America; an experiment that has broader implications for how we influence customer behaviour.

Tips have been banned.

The move behind banning tips

In the 1960s, the US Government introduced a ‘tip credit’, lowering the minimum wage for tipped employees on the basis that customers would subsidise their income. The policy remains in force today and means that if the tips do not bring the employee up to the real minimum wage then the employer makes up the difference.

However, at the end of last year a few high profile restauranteurs decided to reconfigure the wages of staff to resolve some issues relating to the tipping system. 

Those issues included;

  • Believing it was unfair to rely on customers to motivate staff performance.
  • Inequity amongst staff. It is illegal to tip or share tips with non-customer facing staff (like chefs and kitchen staff), so despite their efforts being critical to the dining experience they did not receive any of the spoils, creating a  ‘them’ and ‘us’ division
  • Forfeiting the opportunity to use compensation as a management tool

The restaurateurs decided to raise the hourly rate of all staff by raising menu prices.

…is now unravelling

In a blow for the anti-tipping movement, a number of restaurants are now unwinding their commitment, reinstituting tipping on the grounds that;

  1. Customers expressed displeasure and
  2. They couldn’t retain staff

The confounding thing about this is that a no-tip policy makes sense on paper, so let’s look at both customer and staff issues from a behavioural perspective.

1. Customer behaviour around tipping

Tipping can make customers anxious

A few years ago I was being driven to a trail-head in Yosemite National Park. The transfer from my hotel was included in the cost of the hike, but what about the driver? What should I tip him? There was no meter so I couldn’t calculate a percentage of the drive, and I had no frame of reference. I even asked him what was the done thing, but he deferred and said whatever I decided was fine.

To this day I don’t know whether I delighted or insulted him, and while he may not remember, such was my discomfort that I’m writing about the experience years later.

That’s the potential risk of tipping and of “Pay-What-You-Want” pricing, too. If your customers don’t have an idea of what is the ‘right’ amount, they may end up resenting the position you’ve put them in, or even avoiding the experience.

In theory then, banning tips is an obvious way to reduce anxiety. You’ve taken away the decision so the customer can know exactly what they are paying. In fact, early results were positive for the anti-tipping restaurants with an increase in business.

So why has it gone wrong?

Tipping is the prevailing Social Norm

While tipping has not always been enshrined in American culture (it was illegal in some states in the 1920’s), it has been the prevailing Social Norm for many decades.

That means diners in these anti-tipping establishments are faced with breaching a societal expectation. It might feel okay when customers book the restaurant, but awkward when they have to look their waiter in the eye and leave without compensating them directly.

Tips buy you social approval

There’s an episode in Seinfeld where George places a tip for his calzone in the tip jar, but the pizza maker happens to turn his back so doesn’t see him. A notorious spend thrift, George is then faced with a conundrum. He is happy to tip but only if it ‘buys’ him social approval. George therefore decides to retrieve his money from the jar, only for the pizza maker to see him, accuse him of theft and ban him from the shop.

George’s predicament gives a clue into why the tipping-ban may not have worked as expected. The prevailing societal norm for customer-waiter relationships means that customers need a way to communicate they are holding up their part of the deal. That their tip is baked into the price of the meal does not give them this opportunity.

Added to this, customers are used to mentally accounting for their ‘meal’ and ‘tip’ as separate items.  While the tip is included in the cost of the meal, it doesn’t feel like they are paying for service.

How to change the norm

If you’ve grown up in that type of culture it can take time to change. Anti-tippers should take heart, however, that the US used to be tip-free which proves that norms can be redefined.

In the immediate term, restaurants and businesses that want to adopt a tip-ban need to normalise the behaviour so that their customers feel comfortable.

That means they should look at;

  • Communicating on their menu and/or bill that the prices include a component to support staff wages (something they currently do)
  • Making sure the customers are thanked directly by staff when presented with the bill, reminding them that all tips are taken care of
  • Promoting their no-tip policy as one that is fairer for all staff, and any exception to this undermines team unity
  • Introducing an option to donate to a charity (they also do this)
  • Posting pictures of happy staff and customers around the restaurant to normalise the behaviour
  • Requesting a favour from customers instead eg like us on Facebook, take our card, refer a friend

2. Staff retention

The second reason cited for reigning in the tip-ban has been staff turnover. Again, on paper it makes sense that staff should be attracted to a higher hourly rate.

The problem is that while the hourly wage increased, some wait staff would have seen their individual earnings decrease. The no-tip policy caps their earnings potential and for those who are, or think they are, above average it will seem more attractive to work elsewhere for tips.

Resolving this is a difficult proposition because tip money and wages are, once again, subject to mental accounting. While the restaurants have promised staff they will be no worse off, staff who are used to getting direct compensation for their efforts will find this a big adjustment.

As a result I think no-tipping restaurants are going to attract a different type of staff member – one that is interested in team play and the security of an hourly rate rather than the roller-coaster of reliance on tips.

To help their cause, no-tip businesses need to;

  • Be transparent about the allocation of revenue to staff so they don’t feel they are missing out eg document the week’s takings and break out the ‘tip’ component.
  • Consider how they physically allocate the ‘tip’-fund eg Distribute the money in a team meeting so that it is visible and salient rather than simply adding it to the pay cheque.
  • Promote the advantages of the system, such as never having to compete with colleagues or feel ripped off by an under-tipper.

Lessons for your business

Whether or not your business is one in which tipping is involved, the US experiment teaches us a number of things about behaviour.

  • Providing a frame of reference is important to reduce customer anxiety. Think about how you ‘anchor’ expectations about pricing and make your customer feel comfortable that what you are asking them to pay is fair and reasonable.
  • People have different mental accounts for money, so you need to understand what they are and help them spend from these buckets in a way that feels right.
  • Money is a social signal, so ensure your customer is given the opportunity to demonstrate they are doing the ‘right’ thing, and they are acknowledged for it.
  • If you are seeking to change a convention you will have to take steps to normalise the new desired behaviour.

The Mary Poppins principle

The character Mary Poppins famously sang “A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down” (and I apologise that you’ll now have that song in your head all day), and some behavioural research suggests that Mary might not only have convinced the kids to swallow their medicine, but been on the money when it comes to getting people to do tough stuff.


Temptation Bundling

Freakonomics is one of my favourite podcasts, and one I listen to while cleaning the house as it turns an unpleasant task into something both productive and enjoyable. Little did I know that by pairing activities in this way I was “Temptation Bundling” – overcoming my resistance to something I should do by adding something I want to do.

How did I find out about Temptation Bundling? Funnily enough it was the very topic discussed in a recent Freakonomics episode where Stephen Dubner interviewed the University of Pennsylvania’s Katherine Milkman about her research on whether pairing an unpleasant ‘should do’ task with a pleasant but guilt-laden ‘want to do’ makes us more likely to do it.

Examples might be only allowing yourself to watch TV if you are at the gym, or only allowing yourself a pedicure while catching up on work emails.

In a Poppins world, adding sugar to our medicine to make it go down a little easier. In a behavioural world, getting us to overcome our lack of willpower for the ‘should do’ by utilising our lack of resistance for the ‘want’ to do.

In the words of the researchers;

Temptation bundling can solve two problems at once by increasing the desire of those with self-control problems to engage in beneficial behaviours requiring willpower and reducing the likelihood that people will engage in indulgent activities they will later regret”.


Why am I mentioning it? Two reasons.


1. Temptation bundling for business

If you are selling something that is in the ‘should’ category (e.g. I should get on to my finances, I should do something about my weight, I should have my teeth checked), there is scope for you to enhance the experience.

I remember hearing about a Dentist who installed a $10,000 coffee machine. Pretty soon clients were clambering to get an appointment because what had previously been all about fillings and plaque instead became a story to brag to their friends about. So imagine a breast check clinic that offered a facial while you waited, or a tax accountant that came to you while you were having a pedicure?

If you are selling something in the indulgent category (I’d love to have a facial, I’d love to get a massage, I’d love to have a holiday), but find people are putting it off because they don’t feel deserving, there is scope for you to offer ‘task and temptation’ packages. Have pedi stations that can accommodate a laptop. Pair an afternoon of golf with health check stations at every hole.

Again from the researchers;

Our research adds to a growing body of evidence that many people are aware of the limitations of their willpower and are actively seeking new avenues for overcoming those limitations.”


Strange as it seems, people may well be willing to pay for you to help them take control of their ‘should’ behaviour.


2. Temptation Bundling for your habits

As with all behavioural techniques you can flip the insight for both personal and business application. For personal effectiveness consider what behaviours you can bundle together. Ironing and your favourite TV show? Exercise and an audio book? The trick is to ONLY allow the desirable behaviour when you are undertaking the ‘should’ task, effectively strengthening the ‘reward’ part of a habit loop where the only way to get that pleasure is when you perform your ‘should’ activity.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

P.S. Here’s the link to the Freakonomics podcast page where you can get the transcript as well as direct access to the research discussed.