The Sawyer effect

5 Jul

When it comes to work we are either motivated to do the task in hand or not. An orchestra conductor lost in the Beethoven’s 5th is transfixed in the music and the melody of the moment and unless very strapped for cash is not thinking of the financial reward for directing the strings and brass musicians. Neither is the artist lost in the flow of colours, mood and imagination with his easel and paint at hand.

Anyone sitting on the end of a production line repeating the same task throughout their 8 hour shift  rarely experience this. They will only realise this intrinsic motivation when they spend their weekends hiking through a mountain landscape or flying model airplanes at their local club on a Sunday morning.

How do we get excited about tasks that give us little or no internal reward for completing them? The last thing Tom Sawyer wants to do is spend his day whitewashing Aunt Polly’s  800 sq ft fence. Ben arrives and teases Tom about his lack of freedom and having to work. Tom seeing an opportunity to turn the tables and lighten his load tells Ben that not just anyone can do this job. “Aunt Polly is awful particular about the outside” Ben’s desire to whitewash the fence spikes and he offers Tom the rest of his apple and a brass door knob. Tom accepts, and gets rewarded and once Ben gets a chance to paint that fence an internal satisfaction sets in. Soon all Toms friends arrive and before long they are all painting the fence for no other reason than Tom Sawyer instilled the desire to do so. This is the Sawyer effect in action. Turning work into play. Outlined very well in Daniel H Pinks recommended book Drive

The opposite can happen as Mark Leper and David Greene discovered in an experiment the mid 1970’s when they split up three groups of preschool kids who enjoyed spending their free play time, drawing.

Group One was offered a “Good player” certificate with a blue  ribbon and their name on it. They then asked the child if they wanted to draw to receive the reward. The second group were asked if they wanted to draw and if they did they received an unexpected reward of the Good player certificate, this was unexpected. Group Three were simply asked if they wanted to play and received no reward for drawing.

Two weeks later during free play time. The teachers left out markers, pens and paper for students to draw. Group number two and three the unexpected and no reward group drew as much during the free time as they had done previously. But group one who had learnt to expect a reward spent less time drawing during free time. The Sawyer affect had reversed and turned play into work resulting in a drop in desire for what was previously an enjoyable task.

We can harness the positives of the Sawyer effect if we provide workplaces were people feel they have a sense of autonomy over what happens in work. They control the environment and it’s outcomes as much as they can.

  • Are your staff given the tools to do what they are best and play to their strengths each day?
  • Is your workplace a place where people are treated well and fairly and allowed to feel good about themselves?.
  • Do you encourage fun at work and allow people to express their ideas?

Work is work but when we  harness the playful and fun side to it we ultimately change the meaning of work for us.

One Response to “The Sawyer effect”


  1. Is there such thing as Worklife balance? | Thelollipopeffect - August 19, 2016

    […] is fun and as outlined in the Sawyer effect when work becomes play the magic happens. It is when we separate Life and work and play becomes […]


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