What The Marshmallow Test Can Teach Us About Trust And Work

Tanya Pinto
What The Marshmallow Test Can Teach Us About Trust And Work

How do you make an employee go the extra mile to complete a project? How do you push a reluctant team member to work harder?

This is a question managers ask themselves constantly – and the answer lies in the popularity of marshmallows. Yes, you read that right.

What the Marshmallow Test tells us about employees

Famous psychologist and researcher Walter Mischel conducted a groundbreaking experiment involving pre-schoolers and marshmallows in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Several decades later, organisations have a lot to learn from the findings. In fact, this could be the key to unlocking potential in your employees. The Marshmallow Test provides vital information about how the human mind works.

Before we launch into an analysis, here’s a concise summary about the experiment: pre-schoolers were left alone with marshmallows in a room, and were told that if they do not immediately eat the single marshmallow on the table and wait for a few minutes, they would be rewarded with two marshmallows for waiting. The researchers then periodically followed up with the participants as they grew older, and those who actually managed to wait longer were observed to achieve more academic and professional success in their adult lives. 

At first glance, the inference may appear simple. Those who have self-control and are willing to wait, are rewarded with higher gains later. This clearly puts the onus of the reward on the employee herself – if she has the willpower to succeed, she will go the extra mile and have patience to receive a bigger reward. 

However, if we go back to the experiment and have a closer look at it, we can see that the children who waited longer did so because they were confident that they would actually receive the bigger reward if they waited. They trusted the person who promised the reward.

This is the more important lesson – as an employer, you need to win your team’s trust if you want them to perform to the best of their potential. If you’re wondering how to make that happen, we have some handy tips you can use. 

Five effective ways to to earn your employees’ trust

Be professionally sincere and competent: According to David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, “Even if everyone likes you, you have to be competent to be trusted.” Employees will look up to employers, managers or senior executives who they are certain know their job well. If you’re competent at what you do and constantly strive to improve your skills for the particular job role, you’ll have an easier time gaining your employees’ trust. To attain this, you should never get complacent even you’re the best expert in the organisation, and should embrace the humility to learn new ways of doing the same task. Research the latest developments in your field and be confident when presenting your ideas or strategy to your team – however, make sure you allow space for their opinions too!

Share blame and credit fairly: “The best way to get people to behave well is to give credit,” according to Jim Dougherty, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management. This is possibly the fastest way to gain your team’s trust – when someone deserves the rightful credit for having done a particular task, be fair and acknowledge that. At the same time, do not shy away from sharing the blame when you know you could have a part in a task’s failure, and openly discuss ways in which the team could improve together. Rightfully sharing credit and blame for work done is possibly the quickest way to assure employees that they can depend on you and can expect certain acknowledgement and reward if they work hard. 

Build a truthful and transparent office culture: Instead of allowing employees to believe half-baked rumours about the organisation, you should tell them the truth. Dougherty reckons that when “there is a void of information, employees will fill it and they will always fill it with negative information.” Imagine how negatively that can affect trust! Instead, be truthful with your team about financial facts, company goals and performance metrics. Build a good rapport with your employees, so that when they have genuine doubts or questions about the organisation, they can confidently approach you and expect to be told the truth. Additionally, make sure you offer information equally to all employees – any kind of secrecy with certain team members can immediately destroy the trust you’ve so carefully built. 

Treat your employee like a person, not an economic unit: Empathise with your employees; their dreams, ambitions, emotions and quirks. If you look at them merely as economic units who can boost your company’s productivity, you’ll end up with a bunch of frazzled and unhappy employees who are having a hard time meeting the organisation’s goals. Instead, try to establish a more diverse connection with your employees, accepting that they have a life outside of work and respecting their personalities. When you connect with your employees as fellow human beings, it helps build their trust in you. 

Don’t have ‘pet’ employees: Think that newbie who just joined last week has a brilliant spark? Feel certain that your most senior employee is getting sluggish by the day? Whatever you personally think of your employees of team, the thumb rule is – never let it show in the way you treat them. Having ‘favourite’ employees quickly becomes obvious to the rest of the team, and can fester feelings of frustration and a sense of being treated unfairly. If you treat all employees equally and fairly, it will strengthen the trust that employees have in you. 

Key takeaways: Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test translates interestingly into how employees work: people will be more willing to exercise their willpower to go through with a challenging or difficult task if they trust the person who will give them their reward for it. This emphasises how important it is to win the trust of employees – as then they will go the extra mile to achieve the organisation’s goals. 

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