The Motivation to Do Good

The Motivation to Do Good

Have you heard of the Prisoner’s Dilemma? It’s an essential game in game theory where two prisoners are given two options: rat out the other prisoner or stay silent. When you rat out the other prisoner, if they don’t rat you out, you go free, while they take the rap for the whole crime and spend 3 years in jail. When you both rat each other out, you both take the rap and go to jail, for 2 years each. When you both stay silent, you both go to jail, but for 1 year each. The dilemma is interesting, because throwing the other person under the bus is the best strategy if you believe they’re not going to rat you out, but it’s also the best strategy if they are. That said, that’s only true if there’s only one round of the game.

When there are multiple rounds of the game, if you’ve tried to put the blame on the other player, they’re likely to do the same to you in the next round. With two vindictive players over time, that leads to much harsher penalties than two players who choose to cooperate every time. There’s an online game that illustrates this wonderfully, and it’s all incredibly relevant to motivation in the workplace.

I was listening to a TED Talk that reminded me of the prisoner’s dilemma. The speaker, Adam Grant, was discussing three broad types of actors in the workplace: givers, takers and matchers. Givers always go out of their way to help others; they would never throw the other party under the bus in the dilemma. Takers, conversely, are out for number one, and would quickly tell on the other player. Matchers are between the two; when you’re a giver, they’ll give back to you, and when you’re a taker, they’ll try to take you down. Obviously, we’re humans and not robots, so no one plays one role all the time, but it’s important to recognize that takers are bad for your team, and givers are good. Remember, team cohesion is important to have motivated staff, and takers can put a substantial drain on your resources.

That means you want to motivate your organization to be full of givers; that can start at the interview process, but it can be carried on in the workplace. One of the best ways for this is to incentivize people to ask for help; designate a member of your staff as support, someone who is literally there to field questions and help take the load off when things get hectic. When you’re the leader of an organization, don’t be afraid to ask for help yourself; change comes in large part from the top-down. Go out of your way to encourage good behaviour; look for staff that hasn’t received recognition but might deserve it. Oftentimes, givers give without thinking of the possible rewards, so you may need to ask around and see who is doing the most subtle good.

Another great way of promoting good is by hiring motivational speakers who will attest to what being good and honorable has done for them. Oftentimes, it’s best to relay these practices through personal stories that will inspire.