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There’s More to Life than Mojitos on the Beach (or, Why People Climb the Freezing Cold Himalayas)

September 19, 2011, 12:12 PM

“Everybody’s workin’ for the weekend”                                                                                                                   – Loverboy

What's the Big Idea? 
While it may be true, as Loverboy noted back in 1981, that many of us are “workin’ for the weekend,” that’s not a great situation to be in, psychologically speaking.  Psychologist Dan Ariely, author of The Upside of Irrationalitystudies human behavior and motivation, especially as it relates to the workplace. We want more from life than a vacation at Club Med, he says:

In pre - and early industrial societies, where basic survival is a daily struggle, most people aren’t in a position to seek meaning in the workplace. But in the knowledge economy, Ariely observes, work becomes a central part of identity. Meeting a stranger on an airplane, we’re likely to talk about our careers before anything else.

If work is a large part of who we are, what makes work (and therefore our lives) meaningful? In the field and in the lab, Ariely finds that people want big challenges, some autonomy in pursuing them, a bit of healthy competition, and a sense of completion. He cites his own experience climbing a (small) Himalaya. It was awful, he says. Miserable and cold. But it stuck with him as one of the key experiences of his life. Would he do it again? Absolutely. A slightly bigger Himalaya next time, perhaps.
What's the Significance? 
Bosses and corporate structures that don’t offer workers these motivators, or that thwart them capriciously in pursuit of greater efficiency, are likely to create unhappy and unmotivated employees, which is obviously in nobody’s best interest. Miserable drones and drudges are ineffective even at mindless tasks, let alone the creative, idea-driven jobs that fuel our economy.

Dan Ariely: Now, I think in the modern workplace, we do the same thing. Think about something like SAP. You have this incredibly complex and expensive accounting and control system that take big complex project, break them into pieces, everybody does one little piece.

I remember when I was at MIT and my assistant basically filled out one part of one form as most of their job in terms of doing accounting. Then somebody else would do another part of the form and somebody else would approve it.
From his perspective, he never knew what was going on. He only knew there was this form with 15 fields and he was in charge of three of them and that was it.

And you can ask yourself whether companies are doing a lot of that. Whether by hailing efficiency and breaking jobs into small components, we’re basically eliminating people’s ability to find meaning.

I think we are weighing an Adam Smith kind of efficiency against meaning in labor, and I think the scale often tips too much towards efficiency and not enough toward meaning.

This post is part of the series Inside Employees' Minds, presented by Mercer.


There’s More to Life than ...

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