“We Work Hard for the Money…and Meaning” by Patricia Terstenyak

What exactly makes our work enjoyable?  Does compensation equate to satisfaction? As adults in the workforce, we don’t necessarily hang our completed assignments on the refrigerator door next to our kids’ art work, though we seek some kind of meaning, purpose and recognition.  What do we need to know to have meaningful work lives and experiences?
            There is existing literature on staff motivation and engaged employees and how these areas can lead to increase productivity.  However, a unique approach was recently studied by behavioral economist Dan Ariely.  He explores two phenomena:  meaningful condition and Sisyphic condition.   

            According to Daniel R. Hawes and Rachael Grazioplene, “Finding Purpose in Labor (and Labor Economics)” in Quilted Science, 2009, in the psychological literature, ‘meaning’ is sometimes viewed as one of the strongest motivating factors in human behavior; a concept that fits well also with common intuitions of what drives human behavior.  So how does meaning relate to our work?

            Ariely conducted a few experiments to gain a better understanding of work and meaning; in one experiment, he recruited college students as study participants; they were paid to assemble Lego Bionicles. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the two conditions – meaningful or Sisyphus. Participants worked alone and did not know about the other condition.  In the meaningful group, an individual would build a 40-piece Bionicle Lego figure, instructions were included.  After assembling the first Bionicle, the participant earned $2.00 and was asked if he or she wanted build another one.  After the completion of building other Bionicles, the participants earned $.30 less; so $1.70, $1.40, and so on until the participant wanted to stop.  In this meaningful group, the completed Bionicles stayed on the table.  The participant was told at the end of this experiment the Bionicles would be unassembled and used for another participant. 

            In the Sisyphus group, the experiment was the same except for one component.  After the participant agreed to build another Bionicle, the supervisor would then disassemble the completed Bionicle in front of the participant.  This group of participants were building and rebuilding the same two Bionicles over and over again.

            Does anybody remember King Sisyphus from Greek mythology?  He constantly tried to push a rock to the top of the hill and it always rolled back down.  He never saw the results of his efforts. 

            The results?  There were 20 participants in each group, in the meaningful group, participants built an average of ten Bionicles and received an average of $14.40.  In the Sisyphus group, participants built an average of seven Bionicles and earned an average of $11.42.  ”Even though this may not have been especially meaningful work, the students felt productive seeing all of those Bionicles lined up on the desk, and they kept on building them even when the pay was rather low,” Ariely said.  He also states “These experiments clearly demonstrate what many of us have known intuitively for some time. Doing meaningful work is rewarding in itself, and we are willing to do more work for less pay when we feel our work has some sort of purpose, no matter how small. But it is also important to point out that when we asked people to estimate the effect of meaning on labor, they dramatically underestimated the effects. This means, that while we recognize the general effect of meaning on motivation, we are not sufficiently appreciating its magnitude and importance.”

            The key take away is to see how your work is part of the larger picture.  Acknowledge your staff’s efforts.  Display completed projects.      

Was Donna Summers on to something? “She works hard for the money, so you better treat her right”.

Dan Ariely, who is the James B. Duke professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, is the author of “The Upside of Irrationality.”

Ariely, D., Kamenica, E., & Prelec, D. (2008). Man’s search for meaning: The case of Legos Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 67 (3-4), 671-677 DOI: 10.1016/j.jebo.2008.01.004