What Really Motivates Workers (Hint: It’s Not Money)


How Important is Meaning in Today’s Workplace Economy?


It is easier to take on new work when it’s attached to meaning, according to behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely in a seminar for TED TV. In the talk, Ariely says that the way we approach our work—or the way our work is presented to us—is crucial to how long workers will remain dedicated and motivated. The key to maintaining stamina is feeling that the work has purpose.

Ariely cites several experiments in which he measures productivity and motivation by assigning people tasks that range from questionnaires to building with Legos, and providing –  then eliminating – the illusion of purpose. Shredding a participant’s completed questionnaire eliminated any joy they originally took away from completing the task in the first place. Conversely, even brief acknowledgement – as little as a nod – makes the same task more motivating; the participant is more likely to take on additional assignments. Additionally, Ariely credits the widespread success of Ikea to the labor of at-home furniture assembly: By getting people to work to assemble something they will own, they actually enjoy the product more.

In a knowledge economy, says Ariely, efficiency is no longer more important than meaning. And it should come as no surprise. Who has felt revitalized after hearing positive feedback or praise—or upon learning your daily work has become useful to others?

The way we feel about the work we do spills over into the quality of the work we produce, and it doesn’t stop at the tasks we perform; the same goes for the workplace. The places that we spend the day working need to be motivating—from the people who run it through the aesthetics of the space—in order to foster success. A revised model of labor can propel the next generation of workplaces too.