How do we signify what is a successful work day? Is it getting ahead on projects for the week or sifting through and replying back to a mountain of emails?
Everyone has their own way of quantifying a successful day at work, and we use those methods to help motivate us. But what if a worker gave their blood and sweat for a project only for it to be cancelled? Behavioral economist Dan Ariely related a story about this topic during his TED Talk “What makes us feel good about our work?”
Ariely told a story about a former pupil of his who worked tirelessly on a presentation for an upcoming merger and acquisition. He went over charts, graphs, tables and other information for weeks, staying late at the office. Before the presentation was due, he sent it to his boss for review, only for his boss to say thanks, but no thanks: the merger had been cancelled and the presentation was no longer needed. This sudden shock left him deeply depressed, but he was feeling happy and proud of the work he was putting into the project.
Ariely went on to tell another story of an experiment he conducted, asking people to assemble Bionicle LEGOS, offering them money every time they would build complete their task. He would start at $3 and go down by $0.30 each time the builder took on the assignment.
He had two different incarnations of the experiment. For the first experiment, he would put the finished product under the table saying it would be dismantled for someone else to build. The other one involved him breaking the Bionicle in front of them and asking participants to build them again. Ariely found that those involved would continue to build the products as long as the price was right.
He brought up these two situations because they relate to his theory that there is no significant way to pinpoint what motivates someone at work. He posits that a pat on the back or money is not the main driving forces for people to feel accomplished at work. The process, the act of constant progress and having a sense of purpose are better prognosticators of how someone can feel good about the work they do and it's an ever evolving process.
“When we think about labor, 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.,” he said.