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What Managers Can Learn from Legos

Fuqua professor finds business lessons in children's toys

November 14, 2008
Dan Ariely
Dan Ariely

Professor Ariely working with some of his research equipment

People are willing to perform the most menial of tasks, even for little pay, as long as they consider the work meaningful or are recognized for their contributions, according to new research from Duke University Professor Dan Ariely. Ariely's findings contain important lessons for managers, and result from a series of novel experiments, including one that literally turned play into work by paying participants to assemble Lego figurines.

Ariely and co-authors Emir Kamenica and Dražen Prelec set out to understand how "perceived meaning," affects a person's willingness to work. The team defined meaningful work as a task that is either acknowledged or has some point or purpose.

In their first experiment, Ariely's team asked college students to find sets of repeated letters on a sheet of paper. Some of the students' work was reviewed by a "supervisor" as soon as it was turned in. Other students were told in advance that their work would be collected but not reviewed, and still others watched as their papers were shredded immediately upon completion.

Each of the students was paid 55 cents for completing the first sheet, and five cents less for each sheet thereafter, and allowed to stop working at any point. The research team found that people whose work was reviewed and acknowledged by the "supervisor" were willing to do more work for less pay than those whose work was ignored or shredded.

In a second experiment, participants assembled Bionicles, toy figurines made by Lego. The researchers made the Bionicle project somewhat meaningful for half of the students, whose completed toys were displayed on their desks for the duration of the experiment, while the students assembled as many Bionicles as they wished. "Even though this may not have been especially meaningful work, the students felt productive seeing all of those Bionicles lined up on the desk, and they kept on building them even when the pay was rather low," Ariely said.

The rest of the participants, whose work was intended to be devoid of meaning, gave their completed Bionicles to supervisors in exchange for another box of parts to assemble. The supervisors immediately disassembled the completed figurines, and returned the box of parts to the students when they were ready for the next round. "These poor individuals were assembling the same two Bionicles over and over. Every time they finished one, it was simply torn apart and given back to them later." The students in the meaningful and non-meaningful conditions were each paid according to a scale that began at $2.00 for the first Bionicle and decreased by 11 cents for each subsequent figurine assembled.

"Adding to the evidence from the first experiment, this experiment also showed that meaning, even a very small meaning, can matter a lot," Ariely said. Students who were allowed to collect their assembled Bionicles built an average of 10.2 figurines, while those whose work was disassembled built an average of 7.2. Students whose work was not meaningful required a median level of pay 40 percent higher than students whose work was meaningful.

"These experiments clearly demonstrate what many of us have known intuitively for some time. Doing meaningful work is rewarding in itself, and we are willing to do more work for less pay when we feel our work has some sort of purpose, no matter how small," Ariely said. "But it is also important to point out that when we asked people to estimate the effect of meaning on labor, they dramatically underestimated the effects. This means, that while we recognize the general effect of meaning on motivation, we are not sufficiently appreciating its magnitude and importance."

Ariely, Kamenica and Prelec recommend that managers find ways to bring more meaning to all jobs, no matter how routine or menial. "In many cases we've broken production into so many disparate tasks, workers may have feel very little connection to the final product," said Ariely, "and as a consequence feel very little motivation."

The team recommends educating employees about the goals of their work, and the way individual tasks fit into the larger picture, as one way of overcoming perceived lack of meaning in work.

And by all means, managers who wish to have motivated employees must recognize the work people perform. "These experiments showed that even the smallest acknowledgement increased willingness to work and decreased the level of pay required. But they also showed just how disastrous it can be to ask someone to perform work that they do not see the meaning in," said Ariely.

Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, and author of the best-selling book Predictably Irrational. Emir Kamenica is an assistant professor of Economics at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, and Dražen Prelec is a Professor of Management Science at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Their study, "Man's Search for Meaning: The Case of Legos," was published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.