Attentive Appeal [Download PDF]
Rewarded Repetition [Download PDF]
Steady Going [Download PDF]

At perhaps no other time in your career as a home building executive has it been more critical to inspire employees and trade partners to do more and better work for less pay. Yet, chances are, there has never been a time when it's been more difficult to do so.

The employees left on the payroll are shell-shocked from watching their coworkers get laid off and often paralyzed as they face tasks that seem Herculean and/or fruitless—sell homes in markets where there is little demand or ability to buy, and build better, cheaper, and more appealing houses in an environment where prices for everything but labor are climbing.

But a study conducted by Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at MIT's Sloan School of Management and Media Laboratory, shows that workers performing even the most menial of tasks will do more for less pay if they feel their work has some meaning and if they receive even a small acknowledgement for their efforts.

Ariely, a keynote speaker at Big Builder '08, designed two experiments using students from MIT and Harvard University to perform simple clerical tasks and to assemble Lego figures over and over for minimal pay. The purpose was to determine the differences between workers performing simple, repetitive, essentially meaningless tasks for which they received no acknowledgment versus those performing the same tasks who received a tiny bit of acknowledgment. One of the revelations was that those who received no acknowledgment—and hence no implication of intrinsic value behind the task—demanded more pay for the same work.

“By placing a thin veil over the futility of the task, we were able to induce a greater willingness to work,” Ariely writes. “Meaning is cheap, so to speak, but ignoring the dimension of meaning can be quite expensive, for employer and society.”

Ariel derived a few more thoughts on how to instill meaning into sometimes meaningless work from his experiments. Read on for the details of his work and his conclusions. —Teresa Burney

Most children want to be something—whether firemen, doctors, or economists—when they grow up. In fact, most adults also think of what they do as an integral part of who they are.

At least in the United States, “What do you do?” has become as common a component of an introduction as “How do you do?” once was. Yet identity, pride, and meaning are all left out from standard models of labor supply.

This omission seems understandable: Identity, pride, and meaning are difficult to quantify, and thus it is hard to incorporate them into the empirically driven field of labor economics.

In this article, we focus on how a task's perceived meaningfulness—or lack thereof—by labor producers influences their willingness to work in controlled laboratory experiments. Our intention was to compare working situations with no meaning—or as low a level of meaning as possible—and compare them to cases with some small additional meaning. Thus, our investigation focused not on the high end of meaningful work that is involved when people work as teachers or politicians, but on the complete opposite side of the spectrum.