Work and meaning

Upside of irrationaiityIn The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely reflects on work and meaning.  Can human beings find satisfaction and be engaged in work that pays well, but offers no meaning?

He defines two “types” of meaning:

“m”eaning – a feeling of being challenged by our work, and completing it to our own satisfaction vs

“M”eaning – a hope that someone else, potentially a significant someone, will find value in what we’ve done.  Maybe even a hope that sometime, the wider world out there would benefit in some way from what we’ve done.

To find the impact that Meaning has on performance they conducted experiments to explore the effect of devaluation work motivation.  In one of the experiments, they set up a booth on a University Campus and created a sheet of paper with a random sequence of letters on it.  Participants were asked to find instances where the letter S was followed by another S.  They were told that each sheet contained 10 such ‘SS’ instances, and they were paid according to the following scheme: $0.55 for the 1st completed page, $0.50 for the second and so on (from the 12th page onwards, there’d be no payment).

They then created three “conditions” – acknowledged, ignored and shredded.  In “acknowledged”, the participants were asked to write their names on the sheets of paper.  An experimenter would receive each completed sheet from them, look it over carefully, nod appreciatively and then place in upside down on a large pile of completed sheets.

In “ignored” the instructions were the same, except that they weren’t required to put their names on the sheet.  When a completed sheet was handed to the experimenter,  they placed it onto a high stack of papers without even glancing at it.

In “shredded” once the participant handed in the completed sheet (again with no name required), the experimenter immediately fed it into a paper shredder without even looking at it.

Participants in all three “conditions” received equal payment. The results showed that human motivation is much more complex than a simple reductionist “work for money” trade-off.  If not, once they realised that no-one was actually looking at their work, the participants in the shredded group should have started cheating, persisted in the task the longest, and made the most money with the least amount of effort.  The results show however that while those in the acknowledged group completed on average 9.03 sheets, those in the shredded group completed 6.34 sheets and those in the ignored group completed 6.77 sheets.   In fact 49% of the acknowledged group completed 10 or more sheets, some completing several at no payment.  What was really interesting to me in the findings, is that the “ignored” group’s results did not lie somewhere in the middle between acknowledged and shredded, in fact ignoring and shredding therefore yielded very similar results.

Apparently, the acknowledgement of effort turned a tedious task into something enjoyable, whereas the same task is a pain if there is no acknowledgement and your labour is shredded or ignored i.e. no value is ascribed to it.

As Ariely states: “This experiment taught us that sucking the meaning out of work is surprisingly easy.  If you’re a manager who really wants to demotivate your employees, destroy their work in front of their eyes,  Or if you want to be little subtler about it, just ignore them and their efforts“.

While engaging with corporates on issues like team effectiveness and culture, one of the most pervasive findings about what demotivates people is a lack of recognition.  It is often accompanied by a lack of employee engagement, and even active disengagement.  Ariely’s findings seem to confirm what we already know intuitively, simply acknowledging effort and honoring employees for their strengths goes a long way to improve engagement. Unfortunately, managers all too often try financial incentives or other more complicated and expensive “best practice” solutions, when simply connecting as human beings and acknowledging the person’s efforts would have sufficed.

(This post is based on an earlier version I authored on www.narrativelab.co.za)

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