In their 1997 book “Contented Cows Give Better Milk,” authors Richard Hadden and Bill Catlette share the story of Major General Melvin Zais, commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, circa 1968. Zais said in a speech about keeping his troops motivated, “If you’ll get out of your warm house and go down to the barracks…and just sit on the footlocker…you don’t have to tell ’em they’re doing a great job. Just sit on the footlocker and talk to one or two soldiers and leave. They’ll know that you know that they’re working hard to make you look good.”
This story came to mind after reading a recent response that behavioral economist Dan Ariely provided in his Wall Street Journal column, “Ask Dan.” The questioner shared a story of a new member of his work team who was offered a free upgrade on a flight with colleagues and he turned it down. The questioner couldn’t understand why.
More leg room and free drinks sound like the more enjoyable experience, Ariely agreed, “but your coworker might have decided that staying with the team was of greater importance.”
He explained that in a 2014 research paper called “The Unforeseen Costs of Extraordinary Experience” it was shown that “while certain experiences may be amazing, they can also have a downside when they are not shared by everyone in a social group.” It’s a timely reminder to be mindful of inclusivity when structuring incentives and rewards.