Dan Ariely is a best-selling author, a world-renowned behavioral scientist and an expert on human motivation. His new book, "Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations," offers small business owners data-driven insights into how they might better motivate their employees. Ariely asserts that employee engagement is more absent than present in today's workplace. And Ariely's research shows that employee motivation is highly complex, going far beyond monetary compensation to include factors such as having a sense of "meaning" in the work, being recognized and appreciated and having a sense of ownership over what is done and made.

I spoke with Ariely recently about his research on motivation:

How would you describe the state of motivation in today's workplace?

Ariely: I think we're seeing lots of employers making naive mistakes [and], if we thought about them a little bit, we'd change our behavior dramatically. The lack of motivation is a shame because there are opportunities for everybody to gain, employees and businesses alike. If we get employees excited about the work they're doing, they become more productive, more engaged and happier, too. It's a waste to have someone working without passion, meaning or connection with something bigger than themselves.

Your new book says one important driver of employee motivation is recognition. But while recognition is cost-free, is there a risk of offering employees too much recognition?

Ariely: We have no evidence that shows you can recognize too much. In fact, all the research I've seen shows that we're not recognizing people nearly enough. I've never seen "over-recognition." Think about your own life and your significant other: How many people come to their significant other and say, "You know what darling, you're just giving me too many compliments. Can you please stop?" That never happens. There's even interesting research showing that when people get compliments that they know full well are insincere, they still appreciate the recognition. So I would tell managers: Err on the side of too much recognition rather than too little.

You explain in "Payoff" that giving workers a sense of ownership over the things that they make and do can drive motivation. Could you describe this research?

Ariely: People tend to put a higher value on things they make, and that motivates them. We did a research study with origami (the Japanese art of paper folding) where we got people to create their own origami [they made their own paper animals]. What we found was that when people created origami, they loved what they made.

They also thought that other people would love it. But other people did not appreciate the object nearly as much as the maker. The finding is basically that when we invest some of ourselves into something, that thing becomes more valuable. There's another study that asked the question, which letter in the alphabet do you love the most? What the study found is that people love the letters that are in their own names more than other letters.

So how can employers give workers a motivating sense of "ownership" of what they do and make?

Ariely: There are so many [methods]. One is connected to my earlier point about recognition. Another is about giving people more credit. Giving people credit is one of the easiest things we can do in the workplace, but we behave as if there's not enough credit to go around, which is just crazy. I mean, it's not like there are only seven units of credit in your life that you can give away. We can give a lot of credit away, but we choose not to. That's a mistake, because giving credit [thanking people for their contributions to the final result] gives people a sense of ownership.

What's clear after talking with behavioral scientist and motivation expert Dan Ariely is that there's a current workplace crisis of low motivation, one that can be remedied by data-driven strategies such as offering workers more recognition and giving them a sense of ownership by sharing more credit. While paying your employees more may seem like the best way to motivate them, Dan Ariely knows better. In order to turbocharge employee motivation, you also need to tap into what makes your team members human.

For even more cost-effective strategies to engage your employees, click here.

Tags: employee management Employee Engagement