The Meaning of Work

by ts8richardson

I have spent a little time thinking about the conflict that had taken place half way through the semester and what it meant. It was also interesting to me because I have experienced a fair amount of conflict and challenges in my own work and structures of work, management and team work are in the forefront of my mind.

I had been sent a TED video presented by Dan Arielya on “What makes us feel good about our work?”

I was particularly interested in the example Dan gives about the experiment conducted on working subjects who are asked to build Bionicles. I located Dan’s experiment (Arielya et. al., 2008) and looked into it a little further.

In the experiment,

“subjects received payments for assembling Bionicle Lego models according to a declining unit wage schedule. Each Bionicle consisted of 40 separate pieces, with written instructions on how to assemble them into a figure. There was only one way to combine the pieces, and no subject had trouble following the assembly instructions. The mean time to build the first Bionicle was around 10 min. Before deciding whether to build each Bionicle, the subjects were told how much they had earned up to that point and how much they would earn for making another Bionicle. The subjects were paid $2.00 for the first Bionicle, $1.89 (11¢ less) for the second one, and so on linearly. For the 20th, as well as for any subsequent Bionicles, they received $0.02. The only decision the subjects made was when to stop making Bionicles. At that point, they were paid and the experimental session was over.

In the Meaningful condition, after the subject would build each Bionicle, he would place it on the desk in front of him, and the experimenter would give him a new box with new Bionicle pieces. Hence, as the session progressed, the completed Bionicles would accumulate on the desk.
In the Sisyphus condition, there were only two boxes. After the subject completed the first Bionicle and began working on the second, the experimenter would disassemble the first Bionicle into pieces and place the pieces back into the box.

Despite the fact that the physical task requirements and the wage schedule were identical in the two conditions, the subjects in the Meaningful condition built significantly more Bionicles than those in the Sisyphus condition. In the Meaningful condition, subjects built an average of 10.6 Bionicles and received an average of $14.40, while those in the Sisyphus condition built an average of 7.2 Bionicles and earned an average of $11.52. ”

This experiment gave me food for thought about both my work and the progress of the team. The key insight for me was:

Having your work dismantled before your eyes is soul destroying, and isn’t good for productivity

In the context of my work, I have experienced this, and it is very difficult to apply yourself to your work when it is seemingly done without purpose or result, or even acknowledgement. I think this is a very important insight for management- people gain satisfaction out of building useful and meaningful products and a good manager is able to acknowledge work, take interest in it, and value its creation.

Secondly, the challenge of management is to ensure work is of a high standard, aligns with business and project goals and will be useful and meaningful. The challenge of working in teams, and supervising teams, is working to get the best out of people and ultimately creating a successful product. In the context of this project, the difficult thing for me has been to strike a balance between taking interest in others’ work, trying to provide constructive feedback and to critically evaluate others’ work without dismantling it before their eyes. How can you be critical and offer suggestions for improvement without compromising the motivation and investment the team has in the process? This has been hard. There have been situations where I have felt the team is on different pages and individual’s work needs to be changed and aligned to become more cohesive, or needs to be improved. Yet they have worked hard, have a lot more work to do outside this project and redoing it is upsetting and frustrating. I think I have been more careful about the feedback that I give, the way I give it and to be more sensitive to the pride team members feel about their work. And to realise that my feedback is my opinion and isn’t always right.

Alongside this is a realisation that trusting other team members to get the job done, even if it’s not the way I would do it, is paramount to success and team cohesion. Perhaps I’m guilty of expecting my team to build the Bionicle the way I think it should be built. It’s hard to let go when it’s important the team is successful. Trust is hard, especially when team members seem to be on different pages and communication is floundering, when we have different strengths and tackle things in different ways. It’s also hard to be ultimately responsible for the success of a project and to fear the team members you are supposed to be managing might not deliver at the quality and quantity that’s expected. This fear probably breeds micromanagement and it’s a hard lesson to be accused of micromanagement when, in my own work, I’m on the receiving end and all I want to say is; “trust me, I’ve got this”.

Ultimately, backing off from the team, being aware of what I’m doing and trying to strike the balance of providing feedback, ensuring the team is on the same page and handing over control and direction has made for a much better team environment and probably a much better product.

The researchers of this study concluded;

“The work presented here also sheds some new light on the relationship between monitoring and effort. Many researchers, such as Falk and Kosfeld (2006), have suggested that close supervision of workers might undermine intrinsic motivation. Our Experiment 1 suggests that the way in which monitoring is framed crucially influences its effect on motivation. If perceived as interest in the worker, supervision might improve worker morale rather than induce a feeling of lost autonomy. Thus, monitoring that is accompanied by increased meaning (recognition, education, acknowledgment) might not only eliminate the negative side effects of control, but also increase workers’ effort and motivation.”

Arielya, D., Kamenicab, E.,  Prelec, D. Man’s search for meaning: The case of Legos Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 67 (2008) 671–677