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.

IMG_8963

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?

“Their motivation was completely gone.”

At first, the doctors had no idea what could have caused the changes. Their families said they had become different people.

“It was as if the part of their brain where motivation lives had completely disappeared…They hadn’t become less intelligent or less aware of the world. Their old personalities were still inside, but there was a total absence of drive or momentum. Their motivation was completely gone.”

After years of research, they finally discovered the cause, and it points to how we can improve effectiveness and engagement at work.

When your striatum goes dark

The quote above was from Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg. A neurologist was describing patients who had blood vessels burst near their striatum, a part of the brain that coordinates a range of cognitive functions, including decision-making and motivation.

Though patients were normal in all other regards, they seemed markedly less interested in things. They would respond to instructions but wouldn’t take any initiative. For example, a man who had been known for his strong work ethic told his doctor, “I just lack spirit…I have no go. I must force myself to wake up in the morning.”

Sure ways to inhibit motivation

Over the past few decades, Duhigg cited a wide range of research that made the connection between decision-making and motivation.

“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…
‘The need for control is a biological imperative,’ a group of Columbia University psychologists wrote in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences in 2010. When people believe they are in control, they tend to work harder and push themselves more. They are, on average, more confident and overcome setbacks faster…One way to prove to ourselves that we are in control is by making decisions. “Each choice - no matter how small - reinforces the perception of control and self-efficacy., the Columbia researchers wrote.”

When you lose the ability to make decisions, you lose your sense of control and motivation. It happens when certain parts of your brain are damaged. It also happens when workplaces rob you of a sense of autonomy. 

The zombie apocalypse at work

Recently, I was talking with an executive about employee engagement at his firm and I was struck by the language he used. 

“They’re like zombies. You pass them in the lobby, going from meeting to meeting. There’s no eye contact. There’s no spark.”

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?” Your work day is driven by systemic interruptions and your time largely scheduled by others.

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.”

The remedy

The treatment that was effective for some patients with striatal damage can also serve as a remedy for apathy at work: you help people develop the habit of making decisions and feeling in control. Here’s a quote from Carol Dweck, the researcher noted for her work on growth mindsets, who spoke to Duhigg for his book:

“‘Internal locus of control is a learned skill…training is helpful, because if you put people in situations where they can practice feeling in control, where that internal locus of control is reawakened, then people can start building habits that make them feel like they’re in charge of their own lives - and the more they feel that way, the more they really are in control of themselves.”

The choices people make are even more powerful when linked to purpose: “They convince us we’re in control and they endow our actions with larger meaning."

It’s why Working Out Loud circles focus so much on autonomy and purpose, on taking small steps over the course of 12 weeks till you develop a habit that makes you feel in control. You experience earning your own access to people, knowledge, and possibilities.

Helping people develop an internal locus of control is relevant to any organization. In an extreme example, Duhigg cites the Marines general who revamped their basic training. The program that was famous for breaking down recruits and instilling strict discipline evolved “to force trainees to take control of their own choices…teaching a ‘bias toward action’…We’re trying to teach them that you can’t just obey orders.”

As human beings, the feeling of control is “a biological imperative,” and we need to practice developing it. The modern workplace needs us to practice too. Work requires more than people who just sit and await instructions. It needs people to feel more fully alive and motivated, with a bias toward action and meaning.

We don’t have to accept work the way it is. We have choices, and we have to practice making them.