The People Experience Blog

The Zeigarnik effect and employee motivation

Jun 6, 2020 10:00:00 AM / by Raj

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Short story coming up!

Bluma Zeigarnik was a Russian psychologist in the 1920’s and a member of the Berlin School of experimental psychology . One day, while dining at a busy Viennese restaurant, she observed how efficiently the waiters at the restaurant could remember the details of the orders for the tables that had yet to receive and pay for their food. However, as soon as the food was delivered and the check was paid, the waiters’ memories of the orders seemed to disappear from their minds.

Smiling chef putting a strawberry in the fruit bowl in the kitchen

She was fascinated by this phenomenon and  conducted a series of experiments to study it.

She led another experiment which concluded that adult participants were able to remember the unfinished tasks 90 percent more often than they did the finished tasks. Zeigarnik's initial studies were described in a paper titled "On Finished and Unfinished Tasks" published in 1927.

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The story continues.

In the 1960s, memory researcher John Baddeley further experimented on Zeigarnik's findings. The subjects in his experiment were asked to solve a set of anagrams in a fixed time. Those who failed to solve the anagram in time were given the answer at the end.

What was surprising was that at the end of the experiment, the participants were able to remember the words they were not able to solve rather than the ones they did. This bolstered Zeigarnik's theory that incomplete tasks are easier to remember than the completed ones.

Zeigarnik went on to receive the Lewin Memorial Award in 1983 for her research


The Zeigarnik effect explains how people remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. 

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Some of the commercial applications of the Zeigarnik effect in day to day life are :

  • News headlines 
  • Teasers and trailers for new movies
  • Cliffhangers in novels and video series
  • Levels in games
  • Click ads in online marketing

    All of these, capitalize on the human brain's tendency to focus on things that are incomplete.

Moving closer, remember binging thru a Netflix series episode after episode “lured” by the cliffhanger? Closer to work, remember itching to send your team that one last voice note or the one last email before the next working day starts?

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Now the relation to the workplace

Uncompleted tasks will stay on our mind until we finish them. When we physically leave a previous task unfinished, we really aren't mentally leaving it. Our minds will continue to poke us at every opportunity to go finish it. This can be the strongest contributor for workplace stress according to Will Joel Friedman, Ph.D.

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So..what does our doctor recommend?

  1. Pay attention to the communication : incomplete information that cannot be completely processed by the employee will lead to stress. Due to the Zeigranik effect, they will not focus on the 99 things that you communicated well, but will stress out on the 1 thing that was not clearly communicated. That anxiety and fear of losing out will inadvertently impact productivity.

  2. Do you have a rationale behind the rush : If you are working yourself up over a 2 a.m email that you are itching to send, have you considered the research that has gone behind the downside of sending it vs the upside of your sending it ? How much more productive is to have the employee open up an email mid sleep vs opening it up in the morning when they are ready to go? Asynchronous communication is great, but are you setting the right expectations for it to be truly asynchronous in practice?

  3. The downside is more profound in stressful situations : An employee who is on the verge of getting promoted, fired or is fighting to save his/her job will be more eager to please and the Zeigarnik effect will kick in stronger in such times. It can lead them to focus on task completion irrespective of the relative importance or outcome.

  4. Limit the number of chat channels : Some teams feel that if they are communicating across all channels possible they are doing a great job of being in touch. It works exactly the opposite way. Too many communications mediums leads to a stressful situation where the employee does not know what to post where or keep track of. Productivity hours are spent keeping track of chat messages and providing “updates” instead of achieving anything realistic. The impulses of not being the one to miss out is more profound here than outright productivity.

  5. Make an EOD list : If you can't help sending a to do list, avoid the temptation of sending it at 2 am. Instead make your eod to do list and send it out start of business hours or schedule the messages to go out start of business hours. Pinging for updates at the middle of the night or on days off will only invite frustration and stress.

  6. Sleep over it : As insane and unproductive as it may sound, sleeping over a problem allows your subconscious brain to sort out unfinished task so that you are able to do a better job in the morning. Take a moment to think about it, you would have experienced this firsthand yourself.

  7. Insist on clarity : Do not accept any task that is not clear and do not delegate any task without clear and complete guidelines. This will help you avoid fussing about how to do it and indulge in micromanagement. Keep your instructions brief, clear and avoid adding unnecessary participants to invites.

You eventual goal is to keep your employees calm, focused and productive, not test the limit of their endurance. Want to share your own experience? Drop us a note!

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Tags: Goal Setting


Written by Raj