What Motivates us to Work?

Motivation is intrinsic

What makes us feel good about work? Big bonuses don't always work, says behavioral economist Dan Ariely. Because we are what we do — our identity is tied to the fruit of our labor — we care about certain conditions:

  • most of us thrive by making constant progress and feeling a sense of purpose
  • when we put effort into something, we like to see it realized, or at a minimum share it with others
  • ignoring people's performance is almost as bad as shredding their effort in front of their eyes

The inspiration to learn more about the meaning of labor came to Ariely during a conversation with a student, David. He describes a thought experiment David proposed in The Upside of Irrationality: the Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home:

“Imagine that you work for some company and your task is to create PowerPoint slides. Every time you finish, someone takes the slides you've just made and deletes them. As you do this, you get paid well and enjoy great fringe benefits. There is even someone who does your laundry. How happy would you be to work in such a place?”

Ariely felt sorry for David and told him the story of another friend, Devra, whose editing work on a history book, something she did with joy and got paid for, ended up not utilized as the publisher decided not to go ahead with it.

His attempt to make David feel better, that he was not alone, along with Davids suggestion that bigger issues were at play, gave Arily an idea. He devised two experiments to reveal our unexpected and nuanced attitudes toward meaning in our work:

we created a little experiment in which we gave people Legos, and we asked them to build with Legos.

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." People said yes, and they built with these Legos. 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 we called the Sisyphic condition. 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. 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.

Anyone who has experienced recognizes this feeling.

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?" 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. When they finished that, we said, "Would you like to build another one, this time for 30 cents less?" If they said yes, we gave them the one that they built and we broke.

This was an endless cycle of them building, and us destroying in front of their eyes.

When Ariely and his team compared the results of two experiments, they found that people were much more productive in the first condition.

In a third version of the experiment, they just described what would happen to participants and found that people estimated the outcomes correctly, except for one part — “People predicted the right direction but not the right magnitude.”

people understand that meaning is important, they just don't understand the magnitude of the importance, the extent to which it's important.

The correlation of liking Legos and deriving joy from working with them also held in the meaningful condition experiment. But it totally broke apart in the Sisyphic condition:

In that condition, the correlation was zero — there was no relationship between the love of Legos, 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.

Useless and unrequited work creates a chain reaction around motivation. For a business application of this concept, in The Upside of Irrationality Ariely says:

The findings of the Legos and the latter-pairs experiments point to real opportunities for increasing motivation and to the dangers of crushing the feeling of contribution. If companies really want their workers to produce, they should try to impart a sense of meaning — not just through vision statements but by allowing employees to feel a sense of completion and ensuring that a job well done is acknowledged.

After analyzing reports on climbing mountains, researcher George Lowenstein found that the misery inherent with the difficulties people face through the experience doesn't detract from the sense of accomplishment they also feel. He says:

My own suspicion is that the drive toward goal establishment and goal completion is "hard wired." Humans, like most animals and even plants, are maintained by complex arrays of homeostatic mechanisms that keep the body's system in equilibrium.

Many of the miseries of mountaineering, such as hunger, thirst, and pain, are manifestations of homeostatic mechanisms that motivate people yo do what they need to survive… the visceral need for goal completion, then, may be simply another manifestation of the organism's tendency to deal with problems — in this case the problem of executing motivated actions.

This suggests that motivation is intrinsic. As Dan Pink says in Drive: the Surprising Truth About What Motivates us, there are three elements to it — autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

To understand autonomy, Pink challenges the idea that we need managers to prod us to move forward and that once we do, we need constant direction to keep going:


But is that really our fundamental nature?


When we enter the world, are we wired to be passive an inert? Or are we wired to be active and engaged?

I'm convinced it's the latter — that our basic nature is to be curious and self-directed. 


Have you ever seen a six-month-old or a one-year-old who's not curious and self-directed? That's how we are out of the box. If, at age fourteen or forty-three we're passive an inert, that's not because of our nature. It' because something flipped our default setting.


Perhaps management isn't responding to our supposedly natural state of passive inertia. Perhaps management is one of the forces that's switching our default setting and producing that state.


But today's economic accomplishment, not to mention personal fulfillment, more often swings on a different hinge. It depends not on keeping our nature submerged, but on allowing it to surface. It requires resisting the temptation to control people — and instead doing everything we can to reawaken their deep-seated sense of autonomy.

We have an innate capacity for self-direction. “We're born to be players, not pawns.” This takes us to the next component of motivation or drive is mastery. Athletes like the mountaineers Lowestein researched understand that well — we strive for improvement. Pink says “Flow is essential to mastery. But flow doesn't guarantee mastery — because the two concepts operate on different horizons of time”:

One operates in a moment; the other unfolds over months, years, sometimes decades.


So how can we enlist flow in the quest for something that goes deeper and endures longer?

The Three Laws of Mastery

  1. Mastery is a mindset — implies belief
  2. Mastery is a pain — it requires effort
  3. Mastery is asymptote — a horizontal asymptote is a straight line that a curve approaches but never quite reaches

We find mastery in the balance of finding the right work and working right — this is how we become so good they can't ignore us. For proper balance and context we need purpose. Those who perform “in service of some greater objective can achieve even more,” says Pink.

The Purpose Motive

The most deeply motivated people — not to mention those who are most productive and satisfied — hitch their desires to a cause larger than themselves.

Motivation is intrinsic. Science shows the secret to high performance is our desire to direct our lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and to live a life of purpose. Only if we want to do it — we do have a choice.

Businesses also have a choice. They can create the conditions for motivation. Ariely illustrates with a story:

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. This was a group within the software company that was put in a different building, and they asked them to innovate, and create the next big product for this company.

The week before I showed up, the CEO of this big software company went to that group, 200 engineers, and canceled the project. I stood there in front of 200 of the most depressed people I've ever talked to. I described to them some of these Lego experiments, and they said they felt like they had just been through that experiment. I asked them, I said, "How many of you now show up to work later than you used to?" Everybody raised their hand. I said, "How many of you now go home earlier than you used to?" 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 raise their hands, but they took me out to dinner and showed me what they could do with expense reports. Then I asked them, I said, "What could the CEO have done to make you not as depressed?" 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 next-generation prototypes, and see how they would work.

Looking at something these people had accomplished together as valuable for its lessons would have gone a long way to providing a meaningful environment, where (self-driven) motivation was appreciated.

We live at a different time from when many of the organizational theories were conceived. Our assumptions about motivation were wrong then, they are still out of sync with the way we work now.


Watch the full video of Ariely's talk below.


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