Meaning Motivates

“Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.” – Viktor E. Frankl

Today, more than 50 percent of American employees are “disengaged” with a full 17% “actively disengaged”, as reported by Gallup. They have been researching employment engagement and motivation for many years and tell us these numbers have been rising by about 2% a year since 2000.

This is a big problem because when people are disengaged they are unhappy in work and in life and productivity drops. It’s a lose/lose situation.

In his new book Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations (TED Books), Dan Ariely investigates the nature of motivation and turns business management’s “common knowledge” on the topic upside down.

Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, endured great pain as a teenager while undergoing treatment for burns to 70% of his body. His reflections on this horrific experience brought the insight that we are all deeply driven to find a sense of meaning. His scientific experiments and engaging writing now provide a compelling case for changing business methods to help us find more meaning in work.

This short book describes many experiments with counter-intuitive outcomes leading Ariely, and the reader, to understand that when it comes to motivation, cash is not king. Meaning, connection, kindness, trust and goodwill do much more to increase productivity in the long run. This article provides a couple of examples. For the whole story read the book or listen to Ariely’s TED Talk on the subject. All are fascinating and each reminded me of a business situation I have sadly been in.

The Lego Bionicle experiment addresses the impact of meaning on motivation. Participants were divided into two groups working under different conditions. Both were told that after the experiment the Bionicles would be disassembled and the parts put back in the box for the next participant. Both groups were offered $2 for the first Bionicle built. When it was delivered, the participants were offered 11 cents less to build another, so the second Bionicle would be worth $1.89, the third $1.67 and so on.

When a participant in the ‘meaningful’ group finished the first Bionicle, it was put aside intact and they built the next. On average, participants in this group made 11 Bionicles before stopping.

The second group were operating in a ‘Sisyphic’ condition, named after the Greek story of Sisyphus, who was condemned by the Gods to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down, and then start over, for eternity. This group stopped after making only 7 Bionicles, 36% fewer than the meaningful group.

So what was different? Only one thing; when the Sisyphic group participants were making their subsequent Bionicles the prior one was disassembled, right before their eyes. All meaning was taken away as their work was destroyed, and so went their motivation. What is really interesting is the meaningful group also knew their Bionicles would be disassembled, but it did not happen until after they were finished their work.

An experiment conducted at an Intel semiconductor factory in Israel provides a glimpse into the diminishing effectiveness of cash as a motivator compared to a pizza to share with the family, a compliment from the boss or a control group offered no incentive. On day one the pizza offer increased productivity over the control group by 6.7%, the verbal reward by 6.6% and the cash incentive by only 4.9%. On day two the cash group productivity dropped to 13.2% below the control group and then leveled out to end up performing 6.5% worse than the control group by the end of day three. The company paid them more and they delivered less.

Ariely summarizes the book with a very positive possibilities conclusion, “To motivate ourselves and others successfully, we need to provide a sense of connection and meaning.”

Pam BryanPam Bryan is the Executive Director of Parvati Magazine, and a business professional living in Edmonton, Canada. She volunteers with and is on the Board of Directors for the Tour of Alberta professional cycling race. In her spare time she is learning how to container garden on her balcony, and hopes for a bumper crop of carrots this year.