There are some occupations (such as doctors, teachers, firemen, social workers etc) where people find meaning or a purpose in their work. And then there are other occupations (you know who you are) where there isn’t quite as much meaning. At least that is the general understanding. Of course, it is possible to find meaning in the most pedestrian of occupations as long as one is able to link it with larger goals such as providing for one’s family. But the question is, can people be made to find meaning in such work even when such nobler goals are unavailable. That is, will the presence of a very simple “purpose” allow people to see work differently even when it appears meaningless on the surface? That’s the question asked by three researchers who answered it with the help of two simple experiments.
In the first experiment, people were given the task of finding two consecutive letters in a series of random letters. In each page there were 10 such instances to be found. The reward for finishing the first page was $0.55 and then for each successive page the reward decreased by $0.05. Participants could stop working whenever they wanted, end the experiment and leave with their earnings. Three experimental conditions were used. In the Acknowledged condition, people were asked to write their name on each sheet. When the sheets were returned the researcher looked it over and filed it away. In the Ignored condition, the people were told not to write their name. As they returned it, the researcher did not look it over and put it on top of a high stack of papers. The third condition (Shredded) was the same as the second except that the researcher fed the answer sheet directly into a shredder without a glance! Going in, the participants knew this was how their responses would be treated.
Now let’s think about the motivation of the people taking part in the experiment. They knew it was a research study that would end shortly. The amounts paid were small enough that they couldn’t relate it to nobler goals in life. Cheating was quite possible in the Ignored condition and easy in the Shredded condition. Other work has shown that given the opportunity, people are likely to cheat. In this case cheating does not even have a consequence as the papers are immediately destroyed. So, given all of this we should expect that the people in the Ignored and especially the Shredded condition should turn in more sheets to gain a higher reward.
But the results were exactly the opposite. People in the Acknowledged condition did more work and earned more money than those in the Ignored and Shredded condition. In economic parlance the people in the Acknowledged condition were exhibiting a much lower reservation wage (wage at which they were willing to work) than those in the other conditions. In fact their reservation wage was only half that of those in the other conditions. Why? The simple act of writing their names and the researcher looking over their results was enough to imbue meaning into their work. Trivializing the work by making it anonymous and not providing acknowledgement drained the motivation to continue working on it.
The second experiment was similar to the first except the task was made to appear even more pointless to those taking part in the experiment. They had to assemble a set of Lego Bionicle models and were paid $2 for the first one and $0.11 less for each subsequent one. In the Meaningful condition, as people completed each model it was placed in a table in front of them. In the appropriately named Sisyphus condition, only two boxes of model pieces were used. As every model was completed it was disassembled right in front of the respondent and put back in the box. In other words, it was hard to find a less meaningful situation.
What kind of result was seen? As in the first experiment the people in the Meaningful condition worked longer and earned more money. They also were more productive in that they built more models in a given period of time. There was a clear productivity difference even in the building of the very first model. That is, the simple act of placing the models in front of them (or alternately breaking them apart in plain sight) was enough to make people see their work differently and hence behave accordingly.
It’s not too much of a stretch to see the relevance of this research for everyday work. Employees whose work is acknowledged and who generally feel more appreciated (even in small ways) are likely to see more meaning in their work. The authors also question the excessive specialization that is inherent to modern mass production where workers perform the same task repeatedly and rarely get to properly see the link between their specific task and the output. It is quite likely that even small changes can lead to much more meaning in work and perhaps even higher profitability for the company.
This research was conducted by Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, Emir Kamenica an Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Drazen Prelec, the Digital Equipment Professor of Management at the Sloan School in MIT. It was published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.