The Marshmallow Test: Why Trust Matters at Work

Business.com / Strategy / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

How the famous marshmallow test applies to employee engagement, and what trust and fairness have to do with it.

The marshmallow test, a famous experiment, measured whether preschoolers could delay gratification.

It was conducted by researcher and author, Walter Mischel, who presented children with an option to get a reward right away, or wait and get a larger reward later.

In simple terms, one marshmallow now or two marshmallows 15 to 20 minutes later.

While waiting, children were alone in a room with a table. On the table, the two marshmallows were set, along with a bell.

The participants could ring the bell to call the researcher back; but if the child waited the entire time and did not call the researcher, he or she received the two marshmallows.

The Marshmallow Test Book cover

About one-third of the children managed to delay gratification, but the real significance of the experiment was realized later. Children that did well on the marshmallow test were described by their parents as competent adolescents.

Their SAT scores were higher and so was their educational attainment and even their body mass index. These children also had better mental health.   

The test first became popular in the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence”. You can check out how impactful this has been in many cultural mentions, including an impact on Cookie Monster, who tried to postpone his cookie gluttony. In 2014, Mischel published “The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control”.

Related Article:Why Company Culture Matters More to Employee Than Pay

Does Self-Control Always Make Sense?  

“When I was a boy, I always saved the cherry on my pudding for last. Then, one day, my sister stole it. From then on, I always ate the cherry first.” That’s what David Ogilvy, the famous advertising man said. So, in some cases, if the environment proves it doesn’t make sense to delay gratification, the strategy changes.

In "The Marshmallow Test" the author makes a similar comment: “When preschoolers have an experience with a promise maker who fails to keep his promise, not surprisingly they are much less likely to be willing to wait for two marshmallows than to take one now”.

This was most notable when Mischel discovered that adolescents with absent fathers did not do well on the test. He muses that they “… had fewer experiences with men who kept their promises. …There’s no good reason for anyone to forgo the “now” unless there is trust that the “later” will materialize.”

Trust is important if you want to reward people for delayed gratification.

Related Article:What Do a Company’s Core Values Say About Its Culture?

How Does This Translate Into the Workplace?

In “The Progress Principle” Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer tracked 12,000 diary entries of 238 employees. Their discovery was that events that may seem unimportant at work are what make or break employees' inner work lives the way they experience work at the deepest level, and their motivation, engagement and well-being.

Great managers can create great inner work lives for their employees. This means positive emotions; strong motivation; and favorable perceptions of the organization, their work, and their colleagues. This is what trust is about. Bad managers undermine inner work life and are left with disengaged employees.

For managers, this means that if employees sense unfairness or that trust isn’t there, there are consequences. For instance, if you’re asking employees to go the extra mile, they should trust that the reward they expect (recognition, a good word, success for the company, not just for themselves) will actually happen.

When you deploy gamification to drive performance, you are also requesting people to delay gratification by modifying their work habits or moving out of their comfort zone. If you use enterprise gamification, contests or anything that requires employees to do things differently, rewards aren’t enough if trust doesn’t exist.

Remember that keeping employee trust high means that employees will have more willpower to do what you ask of them. If you are using rewards or gamification take care to be fair and transparent. It’s worth it.

Related Article:Creating An Employee-Centric Company Culture Will Not Be The Death Of Your Business

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