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TED Talk Speaks to Work Conditions That Motivate Performance

February 11th, 2015 by Rebecca Norman

A recent TED talk featured behavioral economist Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, speaking about motivating forces that make people feel good about work.

In Ariely’s talk, he notes that many people believe work motivation to be singularly driven by money. He questioned this logic a few years ago after meeting with a student whose supervisor asked him to prepare a major PowerPoint presentation in preparation for a merger and acquisition. The student worked long hours every day for two weeks on the presentation, and sent it to his boss the day before it was due. His boss responded that the merger had been cancelled so there was no need for the presentation. His boss’s response led the student to become depressed, although he had been happy while working on the presentation.

Based on this student’s experience, Ariely determined that it would be valuable to conduct experiments centered on the fruits of our labor. The initial experiment involved having people build Bionicles using Legos, and in return receiving smaller payments for each one that was built. Ariely identified the meaningful condition as being the point at which participants would indicate that the price was no longer worth it for them to continue making the products.

A second condition that Ariely explored in another experiment was the Sisyphic condition – this name derived from Greek mythology and references a king who was punished for chronic deceitfulness by being compelled to roll an immense boulder up on a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever. Ariely wanted to observe individual long-term response to performing futile work. Participants were again asked to build Bionicles using Legos for continually reduced payments, but as they worked on the new projects their former ones were taken apart or broken in front of their eyes.

Results of these experiments showed that people built more Bionicles in the meaningful condition as opposed to the Sisyphus condition. People would work much longer at the same pay rates when their work was acknowledged than when they saw that it would be destroyed immediately upon completion.

This finding has a very real tie-in for businesses who seek best practices for retaining motivated employees. When employees are given projects that they find meaningful, if for no other reason that they require personal investments of time and energy, it can be quite defeating if the projects cannot ultimately be used. Ariely provides a great example of how this occurred in a Seattle-based software company.

The takeway is that management must understand the importance of meaning for employees and offer some outlets for them to demonstrate their ideas and work, even if projects can’t be applied towards the original purpose.

Ariely also shared some interesting philosophies related to positive motivation in his TED talk. To hear the full talk or read the interactive transcript, go here.