The worse the result, the more you might enjoy it?

A friend recently shared a TEDx talk by Dan Ariely on motivation at work. Now, you’ve probably already read Daniel Pink’s Drive and if not the basic concept is money is not a good motivator. Much to the consternation of companies that continue to focus on a strategy of “pay for performance.”

What was interesting about Ariely’s talk was that he discussed the IKEA effect in people’s endeavors. That is, if you do something yourself, you tend to feel better about it (assign it more monetary value, and assume others will too) than if you came by something easily. In fact, in one of Ariely’s experiments, the harder the task, the more value you ascribed to the outcome, even though an external observer gave the results lower value because the outcome was naturally worse (harder task = harder to do well).

In my mind, this presents a challenging problem for companies. Employees are rewarded by challenging tasks, and the ability to see the quality of the outcome is obscured by how difficult the task was to do. So, in theory, if we assign you a project and through self inflicted means you make it difficult upon yourself, have a miserable time at it, but eventually deliver, you will see that as a better result than if you had gotten there more easily. However, others who are the recipient of your work experience no such effect – your struggles don’t influence how outsiders see the outcome of your work. If it is poor quality, it will be evident that it is.

This sets up a unique challenge for organizations. Things like software processes make projects easier and more predictable. Good for the company, but if Ariely’s research is to be believed, bad for individual motivation. The individual would prefer a more challenging task, perhaps even if the difficulty is self inflicted by not following process, for example. After all, in many cases, the software we develop is hardly novel, and if approached in a structured, careful manner we arrive at a good solution with not a whole lot of drama. But, if that doesn’t provide an emotional reward… well, who’s going to want to work that way?

Personally, I think Ariely is on to something. It is potentially an explanation for why people are so turned off by processes, and moreover perhaps it suggests that rather than let people make tasks artificially difficult for themselves that we ought to introduce some sort of challenge to the work which not only motivates but also adds value. For example, specifying much higher performance needs than required. Food for thought.

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