What is Your Candle Problem?

By March 15, 2021Inspiration

It is common for businesses to seek incentives to motivate their employees. Finding the right incentive can be tricky, as not everyone is motivated by the same things. In addition to this, different tasks may require different types of rewards. 

The science of incentives is discussed by Dan Pink during his TED Talk, The Puzzle of Motivation. The first analogy that he discusses is the candle problem. In this problem, a person is given a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and some matches. They are asked to attach the candle to the wall so that the wax doesn’t fall onto the table. 

Many try unsuccessfully to light the match, melt the wax, and stick the candle on the wall. The trick to the candle problem is to pour the thumbtacks out of the box, attach the box to the wall with the thumbtacks, and then place the candle in the box. However, because the thumbtacks are not already outside of the box, many get trapped in functional fixedness. 

To test the idea of rewards in relation to this problem, two groups of individuals were tasked with solving the candle problem. The first group was told if they finished in the top 25% of fastest times, they would be given $5. However, the second group was told that whoever finished first would get $20. The group given the larger reward took an average of 3.5 minutes longer to complete the candle problem. 

The candle problem was then tested with the thumbtacks already outside of the box. This led to a much quicker performance. Dan Pink explains that this is because when there is a simple set of rules, high rewards focus an individual, thus driving their performance. However, when a task is more complex, high rewards lead to poorer performance. 

The truth is, every company struggles with its own version of the candle problem. At Thoma, we have created our own rewards system based upon our company’s core values. We encourage our employees to work together and to reward each other weekly. Through this program, our team not only learns and expresses our core values, but they also receive small financial rewards that help drive motivation. 

If you would like to learn more about Dan Pink’s The Puzzle of Motivation, we encourage you to follow this link to watch the video. https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_the_puzzle_of_motivation#t-212933

Author Skylar Kincaid

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