Talks – TEDx: Dan Ariely: What makes us feel good about our work?

I like Dan Ariely. He conducts very interesting experiments that reveal a great deal about why we make the choices we do within the economic context we are in. In this TED talk, he talks about what motivates us to work. Big surprise, it turns out not to just be money:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, it isn’t just money. But it’s not exactly joy either. It seems that most of us thrive by making constant progress and feeling a sense of purpose.

At one point he speaks about a former student of his that was working for large bank. He spent two weeks working on a PowerPoint presentation for some sort of acquisition and merger. After working very hard on this presentation he was told a day before it was due that the deal was off and his presentation would no longer be needed. This former student described his mood following this event as being very depressed. Even though he was working very hard on this project, working evenings and weekends, he felt very happy during this time. He felt his work had purpose that was taken away from him when the merger was cancelled. Mr. Ariely goes on to describe another example of a large software development firm where a team of 200 engineers were working on the next big software project for this company. Mr. Ariely gave a talk to these engineers just after the CEO had told them that the project they had been working on for some time was cancelled. Even though, presumably, these engineers continued to be paid well and had other work to do, their morale and drive was completely broken. They no longer worked extra hours or pushed themselves. Their motivation was gone.

Managers need to keep this in mind. Workers and members of a project team need to feel that their work has purpose and that they are working toward some sort of goal. You can’t pay people to run on hamster wheels. Money isn’t enough of a motivator. Your team needs to see enough of the big picture to understand where their work fits into it. In this way, their work is shown to be part of a greater push toward something noble or at least interesting.

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