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  • I want to talk a little bit today

  • about labor and work.

  • When we think about how people work,

  • the naive intuition we have

  • is that people are like rats in a maze --

  • that all people care about is money,

  • and the moment we give people money,

  • we can direct them to work one way,

  • we can direct them to work another way.

  • This is why we give bonuses to bankers and pay in all kinds of ways.

  • And we really have this incredibly simplistic view

  • of why people work and what the labor market looks like.

  • At the same time, if you think about it,

  • there's all kinds of strange behaviors in the world around us.

  • Think about something like mountaineering and mountain climbing.

  • If you read books of people who climb mountains, difficult mountains,

  • do you think that those books are full of moments of joy and happiness?

  • No, they are full of misery.

  • In fact, it's all about frostbite and difficulty to walk

  • and difficulty of breathing --

  • cold, challenging circumstances.

  • And if people were just trying to be happy,

  • the moment they would get to the top,

  • they would say, "This was a terrible mistake.

  • I'll never do it again."

  • (Laughter)

  • "Instead, let me sit on a beach somewhere drinking mojitos."

  • But instead, people go down,

  • and after they recover, they go up again.

  • And if you think about mountain climbing as an example,

  • it suggests all kinds of things.

  • It suggests that we care about reaching the end, a peak.

  • It suggests that we care about the fight, about the challenge.

  • It suggests that there's all kinds of other things

  • that motivate us to work or behave in all kinds of ways.

  • And for me personally, I started thinking about this

  • after a student came to visit me.

  • This was a student that was one of my students a few years earlier.

  • And he came one day back to campus.

  • And he told me the following story:

  • He said that for more than two weeks, he was working on a PowerPoint presentation.

  • He was working in a big bank.

  • This was in preparation for a merger and acquisition.

  • And he was working very hard on this presentation --

  • graphs, tables, information.

  • He stayed late at night every day.

  • And the day before it was due,

  • he sent his PowerPoint presentation to his boss,

  • and his boss wrote him back and said,

  • "Nice presentation, but the merger is canceled."

  • And the guy was deeply depressed.

  • Now at the moment when he was working,

  • he was actually quite happy.

  • Every night he was enjoying his work,

  • he was staying late, he was perfecting this PowerPoint presentation.

  • But knowing that nobody would ever watch that made him quite depressed.

  • So I started thinking about how do we experiment

  • with this idea of the fruits of our labor.

  • And to start with, we created a little experiment

  • in which we gave people Legos, and we asked them to build with Legos.

  • And for some people, we gave them Legos and we said,

  • "Hey, would you like to build this Bionicle for three dollars?

  • We'll pay you three dollars for it."

  • And people said yes, and they built with these Legos.

  • And when they finished, we took it, we put it under the table,

  • and we said, "Would you like to build another one, this time for $2.70?"

  • If they said yes, we gave them another one.

  • And when they finished, we asked them,

  • "Do you want to build another one?" for $2.40, $2.10, and so on,

  • until at some point people said, "No more. It's not worth it for me."

  • This was what we called the meaningful condition.

  • People built one Bionicle after another.

  • After they finished every one of them, we put them under the table.

  • And we told them that at the end of the experiment,

  • we will take all these Bionicles, we will disassemble them,

  • we will put them back in the boxes, and we will use it for the next participant.

  • There was another condition.

  • This other condition was inspired by David, my student.

  • And this other condition we called the Sisyphic condition.

  • And if you remember the story about Sisyphus,

  • Sisyphus was punished by the gods to push the same rock up a hill,

  • and when he almost got to the end,

  • the rock would roll over, and he would have to start again.

  • And you can think about this as the essence of doing futile work.

  • You can imagine that if he pushed the rock on different hills,

  • at least he would have some sense of progress.

  • Also, if you look at prison movies,

  • sometimes the way that the guards torture the prisoners

  • is to get them to dig a hole

  • and when the prisoner is finished, they ask him to fill the hole back up and then dig again.

  • There's something about this cyclical version

  • of doing something over and over and over

  • that seems to be particularly demotivating.

  • So in the second condition of this experiment, that's exactly what we did.

  • We asked people, "Would you like to build one Bionicle for three dollars?"

  • And if they said yes, they built it.

  • Then we asked them, "Do you want to build another one for $2.70?"

  • And if they said yes, we gave them a new one,

  • and as they were building it,

  • we took apart the one that they just finished.

  • And when they finished that,

  • we said, "Would you like to build another one, this time for 30 cents less?"

  • And if they said yes, we gave them the one that they built and we broke.

  • So this was an endless cycle

  • of them building and us destroying in front of their eyes.

  • Now what happens when you compare these two conditions?

  • The first thing that happened

  • was that people built many more Bionicles -- they built 11 versus seven --

  • in the meaningful condition versus the Sisyphus condition.

  • And by the way, we should point out that this was not a big meaning.

  • People were not curing cancer or building bridges.

  • People were building Bionicles for a few cents.

  • And not only that, everybody knew that the Bionicles would be destroyed quite soon.

  • So there was not a real opportunity for big meaning.

  • But even the small meaning made a difference.

  • Now we had another version of this experiment.

  • In this other version of the experiment,

  • we didn't put people in this situation,

  • we just described to them the situation, much as I am describing to you now,

  • and we asked them to predict what the result would be.

  • What happened?

  • People predicted the right direction but not the right magnitude.

  • People who were just given the description of the experiment

  • said that in the meaningful condition people would probably build one more Bionicle.

  • So people understand that meaning is important,

  • they just don't understand the magnitude of the importance,

  • the extent to which it's important.

  • There was one other piece of data we looked at.

  • If you think about it, there are some people who love Legos and some people who don't.

  • And you would speculate that the people who love Legos

  • will build more Legos, even for less money,

  • because after all, they get more internal joy from it.

  • And the people who love Legos less will build less Legos

  • because the enjoyment that they derive from it is lower.

  • And that's actually what we found in the meaningful condition.

  • There was a very nice correlation between love of Lego

  • and the amount of Legos people built.

  • What happened in the Sisyphic condition?

  • In that condition the correlation was zero.

  • There was no relationship between the love of Lego and how much people built,

  • which suggests to me that with this manipulation

  • of breaking things in front of people's eyes,

  • we basically crushed any joy that they could get out of this activity.

  • We basically eliminated it.

  • Soon after I finished running this experiment,

  • I went to talk to a big software company in Seattle.

  • I can't tell you who they were, but they were a big company in Seattle.

  • And this was a group within this software company that was put in a different building.

  • And they asked them to innovate and create the next big product for this company.

  • And the week before I showed up,

  • the CEO of this big software company went to that group, 200 engineers,

  • and canceled the project.

  • And I stood there in front of 200 of the most depressed people I've ever talked to.

  • And I described to them some of these Lego experiments,

  • and they said they felt like they had just been through that experiment.

  • And I asked them, I said,

  • "How many of you now show up to work later than you used to?"

  • And everybody raised their hand.

  • I said, "How many of you now go home earlier than you used to?"

  • And everybody raised their hand.

  • I asked them, "How many of you now add not-so-kosher things to your expense reports?"

  • And they didn't really raise their hands,

  • but they took me out to dinner and showed me what they could do with expense reports.

  • And then I asked them, I said,

  • "What could the CEO have done to make you not as depressed?"

  • And they came up with all kinds of ideas.

  • They said the CEO could have asked them to present to the whole company

  • about their journey over the last two years and what they decided to do.

  • He could have asked them to think about which aspect of their technology

  • could fit with other parts of the organization.

  • He could have asked them to build some prototypes, some next-generation prototypes,

  • and seen how they would work.

  • But the thing is that any one of those

  • would require some effort and motivation.

  • And I think the CEO basically did not understand the importance of meaning.

  • If the CEO, just like our participants,

  • thought the essence of meaning is unimportant,

  • then he [wouldn't] care.

  • And he would tell them, "At the moment I directed you in this way,

  • and now that I am directing you in this way,

  • everything will be okay."

  • But if you understood how important meaning is,

  • then you would figure out that it's actually important

  • to spend some time, energy and effort

  • in getting people to care more about what they're doing.

  • The next experiment was slightly different.

  • We took a sheet of paper with random letters,

  • and we asked people to find pairs of letters that were identical next to each other.

  • That was the task.

  • And people did the first sheet.

  • And then we asked them if they wanted to do the next sheet for a little bit less money

  • and the next sheet for a little bit less money, and so on and so forth.

  • And we had three conditions.

  • In the first condition, people wrote their name on the sheet,

  • found all the pairs of letters, gave it to the experimenter.

  • The experimenter would look at it, scan it from top to bottom,

  • say "uh huh" and put it on the pile next to them.

  • In the second condition, people did not write their name on it.

  • The experimenter looked at it,

  • took the sheet of paper, did not look at it, did not scan it,

  • and simply put it on the pile of pages.

  • So you take a piece, you just put it on the side.

  • And in the third condition,

  • the experimenter got the sheet of paper and directly put it into a shredder.

  • What happened in those three conditions?

  • In this plot I'm showing you at what pay rate people stopped.

  • So low numbers mean that people worked harder. They worked for much longer.

  • In the acknowledged condition, people worked all the way down to 15 cents.

  • At 15 cents per page, they basically stopped these efforts.

  • In the shredder condition, it was twice as much -- 30 cents per sheet.

  • And this is basically the result we had before.

  • You shred people's efforts, output,

  • you get them not to be as happy with what they're doing.

  • But I should point out, by the way,

  • that in the shredder condition, people could have cheated.

  • They could have done not so good work,

  • because they realized that people were just shredding it.

  • So maybe the first sheet you would do good work,

  • but then you see nobody is really testing it,

  • so you would do more and more and more.

  • So in fact, in the shredder condition,

  • people could have submitted more work and gotten more money

  • and put less effort into it.

  • But what about the ignored condition?

  • Would the ignored condition be more like the acknowledged or more like the shredder,

  • or somewhere in the middle?

  • It turns out it was almost like the shredder.

  • Now there's good news and bad news here.

  • The bad news is that ignoring the performance of people

  • is almost as bad as shredding their effort in front of their eyes.

  • Ignoring gets you a whole way out there.

  • The good news is that by simply looking at something that somebody has done,

  • scanning it and saying "uh huh,"

  • that seems to be quite sufficient

  • to dramatically improve people's motivations.