The Clock Test

You walk into a conference room at work that you use often, look up, and notice that the clock has the wrong time. It’s working, but it's off by more than 20 minutes. A week later, you’re in the same room and notice that the time is still wrong. What do you do?

  1. Nothing.
  2. Complain that the time is wrong.
  3. Notify someone that the clock needs to be fixed.
  4. Try and change the time yourself.


Now imagine the clock in your kitchen has the wrong time. Would you answer differently?

My own results

If you’re like me, you would fix the time in your home right away. But at work, your answer would be different.

I was able to take a version of this test quite recently when I was in the gym in my building and noticed the time was wrong. I was slightly annoyed, and wished that someone would fix it. I thought of telling the handyman, but it was too much effort for such a small issue.

A week later, the time was still wrong, and the same thoughts ran through my head. Then it hit me: I could fix it myself. So I walked up to the clock, lifted it off the wall (it was just hanging on a screw as many clocks do), and set the time.

This one trivial act made me feel a bit more empowered. It also made me wonder why I hadn’t done it sooner.

Control and motivation

It's a small example of the link between control and motivation that Charles Duhigg (author of The Power of Habit) wrote about in his latest book, Smarter, Faster, Better.

“Motivation is triggered by making choices that demonstrate to ourselves that we are in control. The specific choice we make matters less than the assertion of control. It’s this feeling of self-determination that gets us going."

Certain environments systematically rob people of their motivation by removing the opportunities to make even simple choices.

“In some workplaces, for example, control is embedded in a process and even the smallest actions require approval from someone else. Or, possibly worse, there’s ambiguity about who can decide what, and decision-making is negatively reinforced as people ask “Who gave you authority to do that?”

A feeling of learned helplessness spreads throughout the organization. People start to believe their “locus of control” is external instead of internal, It’s “they” and “them” who are responsible for decisions, and never “I” or “me.””

At home, it’s clear that I can make certain decisions and take actions. But at work? More than ever, we need people who will “Fix the clock” but we create corporate environments that tell us otherwise.

Did you give different answers to The Clock Test depending on where the clock was located? What made you decide to take action in one environment but not the other? What would it take for that to change?