The Muselet #46: An Ode to a Mug

Writing about the detrimental effects of rewards in No More Rewards, one thing kept nagging at me. A few weeks earlier we had held a virtual conference for our company and community called MatterCon. One of the highlights for me was a video prepared by our community team. In the video they interviewed some of the top Mattermost contributors. People not employed by the company, but contributing at a purely volunteer basis.

The people are the prototypical examples of intrinsically motivated people, wouldn’t you say?

What did each of them mention as something that got them pulled into the community?

This baby over here:

The Mattermost mug.

Yes. A mug. 

From the “mug announcement” post on our forum 6 years ago:

We’ve created personalized Mattermost Mugs to thank people from around the world who have made code contributions to Mattermost, the open source, on-prem Slack-alternative written in Golang, React and Javascript.

These mugs feature the contributor’s GitHub username and date of first commit. Our first design reward ships to ralder, who has been made some wonderful contributions to the quality of the Mattermost web experience.

Isn’t this a reward? And aren’t rewards badAll research on using rewards to motivate people points to various problems, but the most relevant here seem to be:

  1. No stickiness: effects of rewards stop the second you stop giving them out.

  2. Hurting intrinsic motivation: people who were first motivated by doing something good for the world, are at risk to now be motivated by the hunt for more swag.

If this were true, why did we not see any of this with our mugs, or swag that we occasionally send them later? These top contributors had them on their desk and proudly held them up, often years after they got them!

This was puzzling to me.

When I joined Mattermost about half a year ago, part of my welcome package was a bunch of swag as well. I got stickers, I got a hat, but… no mug.

So, I complained…

So, what’s a man to do? I decided to do some real work (as opposed to management work), and contribute some code and improvements to the documentation.

A month or so later, there it was. The mug.

Then, I had a close look at what it actually said. And it hit me.

This did not have the effect of a reward. This mug does two things that are both connected to “relatedness.” If you remember — this was one of the things that fosters intrinsic motivation:

Relatedness: our will to interact with, be connected to others (a sense of belonging), and contributing to something bigger than ourselves (purpose).

This mug’s message does both those things, it tells you:

  1. “Welcome to our group. You’re one of us now. This is only for those who made a contribution (in this case: code, documentation) — and you’re one of them.”

  2. “You’ve made a lasting contribution to the history of Mattermost. What you did has purpose.”

And so we buy in. We we feel of a group. We feel part of a movement.