The gods of Greek mythology could be brutal when angered. Of all the punishments given by the gods, the one given to Sisyphus stands out above the rest. Sisyphus was a king and a trickster. He was so clever that he actually cheated death – twice! As punishment for his hubris, he was forced to push an enormous boulder up a mountain for eternity. Again and again, he would struggle under the weight of the rock only to watch it roll back down. The punishment was a recipe for meaningless frustration. According to behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s research, the Greek gods must have known something about the human psyche.
Ariely says that money is not as motivating as we might think. He makes the point that people run marathons and climb mountains all the time and they do it all for free. These are grueling experiences. Somehow a series of miserable moments becomes a desirable overall experience.
As Ariely explored this mystery, he found that meaningful work, challenging work and work that is acknowledged motivates us more than money.
In one experiment, Ariely paid people to build very simple toys using legos. The amount they were paid decreased with each toy they built. As you might expect, the participants eventually stopped building them when the money became too small. Next, Ariely started disassembling the toys right in front of the participants while they were building their next toy. He did this to show them that their job had no meaning. After seeing the futility of their work, they were much quicker to quit despite the money they were receiving. This was true even for the participants that enjoyed working with legos. Ariely says this shows that meaningful work is more motivating than money and enjoyment.
Ariely also discovered that challenging work was motivating. In another experiment, participants who were not given instructions on how to complete a task valued their work much more than those that were given instructions.
Acknowledgement in the workplace is important for motivation. In yet another experiment, Ariely gave participants some paperwork. Once they completed the work, they handed it in. It was either ignored and put into a pile, acknowledged with a superficial ‘uh-huh’ or put directly into a shredder. The results were similar to the toy building experiment, but they found something else interesting: ignoring the person’s work was nearly as demotivating as shredding it!
Humans are complicated creatures. What motivates one person may not motivate another. But if Ariely is correct, work that is meaningful and challenging, with even a minor amount of acknowledgement can go a long way toward a more satisfying and productive work life.