BLG Leadership Insights

Leadership, Legos, & How To Manage

Anyone currently occupying a leadership position is forced to constantly grapple with the question: How do I motivate my subordinates?

On an intuitive level, we can agree that there is a strong correlation between identity and labor. Meaning, people feel a pretty personal connection to the work they do.

Think of a dinner party. You are often asked about what you do before your introduce yourself or describe your family.Work, whether we like it or not, gives us meaning and defines us.  Knowing this, what can leaders surmise about motivation and getting people to work harder? What connections can leaders draw between productivity and meaning?

Professors Ariely, Kamenica, and Prelac set to answering these questions with a series of experiments. In their paper entitled Man’s Search for Meaning: The Case of Legos, they argued that people work less when their labor has less meaning. Here’s what they did:

They gave students Legos and told them to follow instructions and build robots.  They were paid on a diminishing scale for each completed model. So they received $3 for the first completed robot, $2.70 for the next, and so on. After each robot was built the students were asked if they wished to make another one, until they finally decided to quit.

But there was a twist. When some students finished each piece, the experimenter examined their construction and placed it under the table and asked them if they wanted to build another one. For other students the researchers broke apart the student’s recently completed Lego structure and asked them if they wanted to make another. In the latter scenario people stopped working much faster. In the former scenario the researchers found that the respondents reported liking Lego’s more and completed more tasks.

The study and its implications relates to the workplace in two regards. First, small changes in recognition and purpose can have large effects on the productivity of labor. Second, it is generally suggested that close monitoring of workers reduces intrinsic motivation. This project suggests that monitoring if it is perceived as interest by the worker can compensate for any lost feelings of control. Leaders need to imbue projects with meaning. Any other motivational tools are secondary and perhaps superfluous.

Photo Credit: Oskay