The Leader

Unmotivated employees can be the undoing of any company, no matter the size or industry. Unmotivated employees are unproductive – a drain on company time and resources – and have a nasty habit of spreading their disagreeable mentality throughout the workforce. Finding motivation in any form can be difficult. Motivation in the workplace can be doubly so. As a leader in your business, it can be argued that it falls on your shoulders to create an environment for your employees that motivates the best possible work. But this is far easier said than done.

The predominant motivating factor for work today is undeniably money. Especially in the financial industry, the bonus culture has become so competitive that any company not giving out significant bonuses come year-end may find themselves losing some of their top performers. This may be an uncomfortable pill to swallow for some, but the truth is, loyalty is certainly not a characteristic strongly associated with the current employee landscape.

In fact, today’s employees expect more from their employers than ever before, and not only in terms of monetary compensation. Employees want to find meaning in their work. This is not a new concept, but it seems to be more clearly evident now than ever before. In response to this shifting employee mentality, Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University, conducted a set of studies to observe how individuals perceive and value their work. Whilst the experiments were simple, the findings were profound.

One experiment involved participants building small Lego figurines. For each figurine built, the participant would receive a small fee of three dollars. Each figurine built thereafter would be remunerated at a decreasing rate of thirty cents, priced from three dollars to two dollars and seventy cents, then to two dollars and forty cents, until eventually reaching zero. At the completion of each figurine, the participant would be asked if they were willing to build the next one for the decreased remuneration value.

Importantly, the experiment was also divided into two conditions; the “meaningful condition” and the “Sisyphic condition”. The “meaningful condition” entailed moderators of the experiment taking each figurine that participants built and carefully placing them in a box under the table. The “Sisyphic condition” refers to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was punished by the gods by having to push a large boulder up a steep hill every day, only for it to roll back down when nearing the top, repeating this task for eternity. This condition entailed moderators taking the figurines, once assembled by the participant, and completely dismantling the Lego as they began working on the next one. When the next figurine was completed, the participant would be handed the same deconstructed pieces that they had earlier assembled, creating a continuous cycle of construction and deconstruction of the same task.

What was noted in this experiment was that participants in the “meaningful condition” would build more figurines for less money, while the participants in the “Sisyphic condition” would not be willing to complete the task as many times. Also interesting to consider is that a survey was performed before the experiment to see which participants mentioned that they like building Lego. In the “meaningful condition”, there was a strong correlation between those who liked Lego and those who built the most figurines. In contrast, there was a very low correlation between those who enjoyed building Lego and the number of figurines built in the “Sisyphic condition”, hinting that without some meaningful recognition or a sense of lasting accomplishment, even someone who enjoys their work will eventually lose motivation. It is for this reason that Ariely believes money alone cannot solve the problem of motivating employees, as it is within the very work they do and the meaning they garner from the recognition of a successfully completed project that individuals find pride and satisfaction.

What is telling here is that the “meaningful condition” by no means involved a congratulatory gesture upon the completion of a task, nor did it include the increase of remuneration to reward participants. In comparing the conditions, both have the same remuneration structure, as well as the completion of essentially the same task. The differences are subtle, yet in the one case, the spirits of the participants are broken. In the same way that prison guards torture prisoners by forcing them to do tasks that are meaningless, such as endlessly digging holes only to then fill them in again, the spirit of the human being is progressively undermined in one case compared to the other.

As a business leader, considering the consequences with which each condition correlates, one would do well to take these subtle differences to heart. The line between meaningful and meaningless work in the mind of an employee is a thin one, yet it now more than ever demands closer scrutiny. As has been shown, meaning and motivation go hand in hand, so it is not enough to simply keep employees busy, it is imperative to prove to them that their work is meaningful. How one does this will vary from industry to industry, company to company, and person to person, but investing in finding the source of meaning and motivation will not only lead to satisfaction, but may even provide a decisive competitive edge.