How to confer and destroy meaning in work

Dan Ariely is a professor in behavioural economics at MIT. His most recent book, The Upside of Irrationality, includes a fascinating chapter on the meaning of work and the connections among motivation, personal meaning and productivity.

Dan explains several experiments with animals and humans that seek to test the standard economic view that organisms will always choose to maximise their reward while minimising their effort. The questions that interest him include: Are we motivated by the challenge of what we are doing and the satisfaction of completing a task (small m meaning) or do we need big M meaning, that is, a sense that what we do will matter in a broader context (e.g. curing cancer, solving world poverty).

This is what Ariely concludes:

‘Experiments tell me is that if you take people who love something and you place them in meaningful working conditions, the joy they derive from the activity is going to be a major driver in dictating their level of effort. If you take the same people with the same initial passion and desire and place them in meaningless working conditions, you can very easily kill any internal joy they might derive from the activity.’

In other words, sucking the meaning out of work is easy. All you have to do is destroy people’s work and ignore their effort. This can be done in subtle and not so subtle ways. Examples are:

  • Spending time on a project only to have it cut short by a change in priorities or budget.
  • Not giving any context to what people do.
  • Asking people to work on only a part of a process and never allowing them to see their work completed. (IT systems that break work into segments completed by different people fosters this practice)
  • Failing to acknowledge people’s efforts (a thank you can be enough)
  • Sitting on other people’s work (not reading it, not making a decision)

Ariely suggests that managers may not need to increase meaning at work as much as ensure that they don’t sabotage the process of labour. He further concludes by saying:

‘If companies really want their workers to produce, they should try to impart a sense of meaning – not just through vision statements but by allowing employees to feel a sense of completion and ensuring that a job well done is acknowledged. At the end of the day, such factors can exert a huge influence on satisfaction and productivity.’

You can read papers by Dan Ariely.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.