Why does work frustrate us if things seem to move terribly slowly? And how is this frustration linked to an exponential growth of Powerpoint presentations and books of e-mails?

female employee checking e-mailResearch I carried out as part of a Design Thinking project at an academic institution shows one core reason for low productivity levels is a lack of instant gratification.* That is defined as the lack of a reward subsequently after doing the work. This can be a colleague saying “You did a great job!”; or yourself becoming aware of “I accomplished something great”. We often lack this, because matrix organizations naturally create long turnarounds – making it really hard for us to link the work we do to an immediate output. So as we have a desire for that instant gratification, we come up with workarounds. Presentation decks as a piece of art are one of them, or behavior causing reactions like “Ah, another 100 e-mails sent – I feel like I’m doing something!!” Not trying to say internal communication isn’t necessary, but it is only a tool for accomplishing things – and shouldn’t be the accomplishment in itself.

Instant gratification is so important because its expectation drives our behavior. Expected gratification makes us do things – if we expect no reward from an action we will rather do something different. This expectation of gratification is communicated in our bodies through the neurotransmitter dopamine, as found out by my favorite biologist Robert Sapolsky points out. Now, one significant difference Sapolsky draws between monkeys and humans is the factor “time”. A monkey will not do any work if he doesn’t get instant gratification. Humans can sometimes work weeks and even years without direct reward for their work – but they need to see some progress! So, every one of us is still somewhat of a monkey and strives for instant gratification. The resulting formula is an easy one: No expected instant gratification – no behavior (read: work).

So what can we learn from this? Everybody needs instant gratification. It is the challenge of a manager to design the work of employees in such a way they get their gratification from the things managers try to achieve. Usually, this will not be an abundance of e-mails or decks, but instead realized projects or increased turnover. How can this be done? Well, this is the trickier part. At least for monkeys, food dispensers proved to be quite efficient… for us a work-recognizing environment which celebrates pro-active behavior, creative ideas and their implementation should be a start. By the way: Research has shown the effect of promotions, salary increases and other on-off actions have a very limited effected on motivation of employees. The magic happens when there is a continuous flow of gratifications.