Duke behavioral economist Dan Ariely shares lessons on beyond-the-obvious ways to create meaning and motivation to work.
Here at Heron, we think a lot about what makes for a quality job–qualifications like good pay, benefits, reliable hours, durability, and opportunity for advancement. One factor that has come to light is that a good job is often about a good employer. A good employer can make difficult work bearable, and a bad employer can make your dream job unbearable.
We also think a lot about the challenges of running nonprofit enterprises, which often require balancing great resourcefulness on razor-thin financial margins.
So we enjoyed this TED talk from Duke behavioral economist Dan Ariely on what motivates great work (and how that relates to pay scale). Interesting experiments showed that it’s not only possible but fairly easy to bring meaning to virtually pointless tasks, destroy the natural joy a person might take in their work, increase the perceived value of a work product through effort and ownership, and more. A real-life example showed how much it mattered:
I went to talk to [...] a group within this software company that was put in a different building. And they asked them to innovate and create the next big product for this company. And the week before I showed up, the CEO of this big software company went to that group, 200 engineers, and canceled the project. And I stood there in front of 200 of the most depressed people I’ve ever talked to. And I described to them some of these Lego experiments, and they said they felt like they had just been through that experiment.
And I asked them, I said, “How many of you now show up to work later than you used to?” And everybody raised their hand. I said, “How many of you now go home earlier than you used to?” And everybody raised their hand. I asked them, “How many of you now add not-so-kosher things to your expense reports?” And they didn’t really raise their hands, but they took me out to dinner and showed me what they could do with expense reports.
And then I asked them, I said, “What could the CEO have done to make you not as depressed?” And they came up with all kinds of ideas. They said the CEO could have asked them to present to the whole company about their journey over the last two years and what they decided to do. He could have asked them to think about which aspect of their technology could fit with other parts of the organization. He could have asked them to build some prototypes, some next-generation prototypes, and seen how they would work. But the thing is that any one of those would require some effort and motivation. And I think the CEO basically did not understand the importance of meaning.
We encourage you to watch the entire video for funny and provocative considerations on ugly origami, building with Legos under Sisyphean conditions, the market value of your own children compared to someone else’s, and Adam Smith versus Karl Marx in the knowledge economy.