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What motivates people at work

One of my favorite past times is watching TED Talks. These short bursts of fascinating information always get me thinking. I recently watched one by the Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely on what motivates us to work. If you don’t have 20 minutes to watch his full talk, keep reading for my summarized version!

Most of us believe that people are motivated my money. When we think about labor, we usually think that motivation and payment are one and the same. The reality is that there is so much more to motivation: meaning, creation, challenges, ownership, identity, pride, etc.

The Mountain Climber

Let’s consider a quick example to learn about motivation. We have all heard stories about mountain climbers. These stories are not just filled with rainbows and butterflies – they are filled with challenges, low points, unexpected turns and intense physical exertion.  For some reason, these obstacles do not stop men and women from attempting peak after peak. This suggests that we care about so much more than money – we care about the fight, the challenge, and ultimately, reaching the end.

How important are the fruits of our labor to us?

To find an answer to this question, Dan and his team embarked on some behavioral research. This study had two conditions: the Meaningful Condition and the Sisyphic Condition.

  1. The Meaningful condition

Participants were given Legos and asked to build a Lego Bionicle for $3.00. After they finished, they were asked to build another, but this time, for $2.70. When finished they were asked, “Do you want to build another one?” for $2.40, $2.10, and so on, until at some point people said, “no more. It’s not worth it for me.”

  1. The Sisyphic Condition:

In this condition, participants were also asked to build a Lego Bionicle for $3.00. After they finished, the administrator destroyed the Bionicle in front of the participant. Participants were then asked if they wanted to build another, but for $2.70, $2.40, $2.10, and so on. This created an endless cycle of the participant building, and the administrator destroying right in front of the participant’s eyes.

Comparing the Conditions:

People built more Bionicles in the Meaningful Condition (11) then in the Sysyphic Condition (7). This demonstrates that even a small amount of meaning can greatly impact an individual’s motivation to work. Participants were not curing cancer or building bridges – they were simply assembling Legos. But even so, a small amount of meaning made a big difference.

If you understand how important meaning is, then you will see that it is crucial to spend some time, energy and effort getting people to care about what they are doing.

The Invention of Cake Mix

Let’s look at another example to consider what motivates people to work. When cake mixes were invented in the ‘40s, they were not a success. All a housewife had to do was take the cake mix powder, add in some water, put it in the oven and – voila – you had a cake.

Why was this invention unsuccessful? It wasn’t the taste…the taste was great! It turned out that cake mixes made baking too easy. It was so simple that no one could serve a guest and say, “here is my cake.”

What did the inventors do to solve this? They took the eggs and the milk out of the powder. Now you had to crack the eggs and add them, you had to measure the milk and add it. Then you had to mix everything together. These small changes involved more work, but they gave people a sense of ownership and accomplishment that ultimately made the product successful.

I highly recommend that you watch Dan Ariely’s full talk on what makes us feel good about our work. It includes more details on his experiments and more interesting examples.

Now our challenge is to take this information and use it to effectively motivate our employees. If you create meaning, pride and ownership in the work you give your employees, you will be able to increase both their productivity and their happiness.

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