Purpose is everything at work

Overall productivity in the workplace has plateaued. It has been this way for years, despite all the advances in technology. The challenge is then, for leaders to get workers engaged and motivated to lift productivity. 

Which leads us to the question; what is it that motivates people at work? Is it the money? Is it the people? Is it the fulfilment and the joy from doing a job you enjoy? Well I’m sure all these factors certainly help keep people coming back day in and day out, but what really motivates us, it seems, is a sense of purpose. When people feel like they are working towards something bigger than themselves, a greater purpose, they feel most motivated. 

Meaningful work vs meaningless work 

In his  TED Talk, behavioural economist Dan Ariely presents two insightful experiments that reveal our unexpected and nuanced attitudes toward meaning in the work we do.

In the first experiment he gave a group of individuals some Lego to build something simple in exchange for $3. When complete, he took it, placed it under the table and asked them to build another with some more Lego, this time for $2.70. Again, they all agreed. They finished and the creation was put under the table and they agreed to build another one, for a slightly lesser amount. At some point, the group said they were no longer wanting to build the Lego, that it wasn’t worth it any longer.  The group were told that at the very end of the experiment, their creations would be dismantled, put back into their boxes and given to the next group of participants to start the process all over again.

This was what Ariely called the “meaningful condition”. (Knowing their creations would be collected and then dismantled at the very end does not sound like ‘meaningful’ work, but you’ll see in the next, more extreme experiment the marginal meaning in the work of this group in comparison). 

In the next experiment, the exact same situation happened except after each build, the control team simply took the creation and dismantled it in front of them and put the pieces back in its box, really showing the futility of their work to the participants, despite the transactional agreement of building the Lego creation in exchanged for and agreed amount. Ariley referred to this experiment as the “Sisyphic condition”. Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, was punished for his sins by Zeus who gave him the eternal task of rolling a heavy boulder up a hill and when he almost got to the end, the rock would roll over, and he would have to start again – the same boulder on the same hill. Again and again. Forever.

This, of course, is the epitome of futile, meaningless work. Poor old Sisyphus has absolutely no meaning or purpose to his work. If he rolled the boulder up different hills with different elevations there would at least be some variation in his task to give the smallest sense of progress, but as it was, the very thought of doing something over and over again with absolutely no sense of purpose of progress is particularly demotivating.Conducting these two experiments, he discovered two things.

Firstly, people agreed to build many more Lego creations (eleven in fact) in the meaningful condition, versus only seven in the Sisyphus condition. Both groups knew that their Lego creations would be destroyed, but the group with the slightly higher level of meaning to their work, were more motivated. As Ariely puts is “even the small meaning made a difference”. 

The second thing they discovered in the experiment was that in the first group, people derived slightly more joy from building their Lego creations that the second group, who derived no joy at all, because as soon as they built their Lego, it was destroyed in front of them. So any thoughts that innate joy of building the Lego disappears if they know their work is completely meaningless and futile. “By breaking things in front of people’s eyes, we basically crushed any joy that they could get out of this activity. We basically eliminated it.”

There’s more to work fulfilment than money 

Another interesting fact is that people get fulfilment and motivation from the process of their work. When cake mixes were first introduced in the 1940s, they had literally every ingredient in it, so all you had to do was add a bit of water, put it in the oven and your cake would be baked to perfection. It turns out they weren’t very popular. And that is because there was no sense of accomplishment and fulfilment in the cake making.

So, the cake mix manufacturers took the egg and the milk out of the packet, requiring people to add not only water, but eggs and milk to their cake mixes in order to make their cakes. “Now you had to break the eggs and add them, you had to measure the milk and add it, mixing it. Now it was your cake. Now everything was fine”.

Ariley concludes his TED Talk with a powerful conclusion; “when we think about labour, we usually think about motivation and payment as the same thing, but the reality is that we should probably add all kinds of things to it — meaning, creation, challenges, ownership, identity, pride, etc.”. How do you keep your team motivated in the workplace? And what motivates you to keep working? 

Could you and your leadership team do with one of my tailored workshops? I’d love to share my experience and fool-proof leadership techniques with you. Don’t hesitate. Get in touch today.

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